BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: 15-6

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Stay tuned for the conclusion in the next few days.  Thanks again for reading my blog, and feel free to comment about how great or terrible this list or site may be!

15. Les Chemins de verre by Karkwa

Put simply, this was the second best Arcade Fire record this year.  That seems to lessen the output of one of the bands, but really doesn’t on further inspection.  Karkwa have endearing vocals, layered instrumentation and a strong presence on record.  They’re a bit lighter than the more popular Canadian band, but this is an amazing album to fall into.  Just remember it’s in French.

14. Teen Dream by Beach House

It took me a long time to warm up to Beach House.  The singles didn’t really catch me.  But finally with one Amazon deal later, I decided to jump right in.  It was a great choice – this is a very complete release that deserves a full listen and plenty of attention.  With enough time, the sweeping sounds and captivating lead singer will win you over.  Another victory for pure pretty music.

13. The Archandroid by Janelle Monae

Ms. Monae has been bumping all over my list.  Ask me in another month, and it might be in the top five.  This record is immensely rewarding – it features many styles of music yet holds strong album-wide cohesiveness.  Combine this with an ambitious concept and near-flawless execution and you realize you’re listening to a star rise.  Oh, and “Tightrope.”  2010 was an awesome year if this was so low.  I cannot wait to see what she does next.

12. Brothers by The Black Keys

There is a certain amount of live show bias in this pick: I saw The Black Keys open for The Flaming Lips last year.  I was blown away – they had a stage presence unlike any opener, and they acted like the real draw.  On record, they are they real deal too.  Swagger something crazy combines with tons of musical and compositional skill to back it up.  They’re getting lots of attention these days and quickly becoming the best thing out of Akron (including King James).  Join them.

11. Personal Life by The Thermals

The Thermals don’t get much respect from critics, and I think it’s a shame.  All they do is put out some of the best punk rock in current music.  They’re complicated enough to keep your attention and have the raw grit necessary to meet genre specifications.  But I guess you can get looked over when your previous output (The Body the Blood the Machine) was so amazing. … Wait, what?  Please don’t forget these guys – they’re only doing what they always have and that is awesome.

10. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West

I would be better to direct you to the other drooling reviews of this bloated ego-boosting monster of a release.  But sometimes the discussion of Kanye forgets the record itself.  It turns out that Mr. West is actually still a brilliant pop master.  He pulls in great sounds and constructs excellent rhythms.  Then West manages to lay down some career-best rapping and bring in a litany of talented guests.  Every song is exciting and the record is really worth owning.  Yay hype!

09. Write About Love by Belle & Sebastian

Yet again, it’s another band I’ve missed before and feel ashamed for not seeing.  2010 was a stunning year for twee/indie pop, and these folks stand at the top.  Each track is a shimmering composition backed up by exceptional musicians.  There is real ambition here, and every bit of it is met.  Tight melodies, lovely voices, a balance of ballads and upbeat tracks, fun guitars, strong drumming, great keyboards… this album has it all.  A pop masterpiece.

08. Transference by Spoon

With the first listen, I was disappointed.  This was the first clunker in the Spoon catalog.  But like so many other great records, time brought new understanding.  Unlike the effortless wonder of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon was challenging us with Transference.  The songs were difficult in their sparseness, and ended in strange places.  Instrumentals were unnerving and seemed moments from falling apart.  But that’s the beauty – it all manages to work and leave you with more timeless songs.  I guess they still don’t have a bad record.

07. Epic by Sharon Van Etten

I’ve already gushed about “Don’t Do It,” but what about the rest of the record?  Thankfully, that also stands tall.  Van Etten’s voice is always one of the main draws but there are no weak points here.  The lyrical and emotional value of each track is stellar.  The guitar work is appropriate and evocative.  Epic may have the wrong title from a rock fan’s perspective, but the album is exceptional rewarding repeated listens and impressing on the first.  Quiet, emotional and brilliant.

06. Contra by Vampire Weekend

I thought that Vampire Weekend would never be able to match the pop greatness of their self-titled debut.  It turns out I was wrong and too short-sighted.  The band didn’t go back to pop only, and have expanded to more artistic and rhythmic fare.  The shift is a full success, offering more rewarding compositions, better singing, and a much deeper record.  It’s quite shocking how much the band have improved – even without a true A+ song a la “A-Punk.”  It turns out you don’t need that when everything else is so much better.

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BEST SONGS OF 2010: 5-1

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5. “Conversation 16” by The National

This was the song that finally got me.  I somehow didn’t “get it” for a while with The National.  I was like so many other lost souls.  I thought they were boring, or dull, or that every song sounded the same.  I appreciated the loud songs or the good piano songs, but I didn’t really understand.  And then the creepy chill of “Conversation 16” knocked me right over.  The warbling bass line and the pinpoint drums finally made sense.

But what I ultimately realized were the details.  The organic singing, the reeds playing, the haunting “ooo” behind the chorus, the emotive lyrics, the lightly plucked background guitar.  It took me long enough, but everything worked and that made every other National song work.  If you are how I was, I beg you to try this song.  It might change everything.

4. “Suburban War” by Arcade Fire

“Suburban War” is the most complete standalone song from The Suburbs and that’s why it lands so high.  Unlike the rest of the album, the mood and feeling of this song are retained in any setting, not just in its proper place.  The obvious draw is the plucked guitar that covers the majority of the song, but everything else leaves you holding on for more.

I personally love the little drum fill at the very start of the song, the sweeping strings, and the excellent harmonies.  But the song becomes so much more when it finally takes off, with thunderous drumming, desperate wails and a massive volume increase.  This gives the track real character, and leaves it as a very holistic composition.  This is the ultimate turning point on The Suburbs and the true highlight on a brilliant record.

3. “What You Know” by Two Door Cinema Club

I just can’t avoid this song or this band.  It defies simple dance rock by adding strong emotional depth.  While it starts with a “typical” guitar and drum figure, that high ringing guitar that enters at the 14-second mark changes everything.  Instead of just pushing with a grungy guitar and bass, the ringing guitar cries out with real strength and power.  It seems overkill, but it really makes the song.

But is one guitar enough to make it the third best track of the year?  It does when piled above an infectious beat, a great breakdown halfway through and enthusiastic singing.  Really, Tourist History does very little wrong, and this is the ultimate high point, with the whole track just popping out beyond almost all others this year.  Dance to it, feel sad about it, enjoy the whole thing.  It’s amazing.

 

2. “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter

I’m not the world’s biggest Deerhunter fan.  I don’t really think Halcyon Digest is the pure masterpiece that so many others claim.  I don’t know that I could seriously sit through one of their albums more than once.  They’ve awfully experimental and dense – which isn’t a bad thing, it just doesn’t fit my tastes all the time.  Of course, they’ve managed to make two insanely huge exceptions in singles.  The first was “Nothing Ever Happened,” a purely brilliant song and fifth best of the last decade.  The second is this song.

I can’t really pinpoint why I love the song so much, but it’s crucial to note what a late entry this track was.  I hadn’t listened to any of the new Deerhunter record until Christmas, and somehow didn’t get all the way to this track.  Oh boy was I missing out.  There are such haunting and genuinely bothersome voices.  There is a real sense of escape, but you can’t tell if that’s a good thing.  The chorus is centered around the phrasing “Walking free, come with me / Far away, every day,” which would seem nice enough, but a very subtle “whoa-oh” follows after every three syllables.  It’s mildly liberating and terrifying.

But the true release is in the final half of the song, a lengthy guitar solo and instrumental breakdown, almost fullfilling the initial promise of freedom.  The production is stellar, the pacing perfect, and it just sticks with you the whole time.  I cannot say enough about this song, but it does fall short of the overall top status.

1. “Don’t Do It” by Sharon Van Etten

Here we are at the best song of the year.  I was introduced to Sharon Van Etten through the All Songs Considered NPR Podcast (an excellent way to find new music) and completely blown away by her voice.  Van Etten sounds confident, but not conceited, and emotional without being whiny.  She strikes one of the most perfect vocal balances in current music, and her warmth just draws you in.

From here, the song sweeps you away.  Sparse composition creates a strong backbone for the singing to work around.  It’s all about mood in the instrumentals, and they develop a very strong one.  Light and effective drumming keeps a consistent pace while gradually adding cymbals as the song builds.

The subject matter also pushes the song beyond a simple vocal reflection.  “Don’t Do It” is effectively about suicide, with the singer pleading with the afflicted to not take their own life.  It is sobering, yet ultimately optimistic treatment of such a difficult topic.  Particularly poignant is one of the first lines, “Want to take you outside / Want to show you the sky to remind you why you shouldn’t.”  The song drops you right into the situation, and begs you to interact.

“Don’t Do It” isn’t a pure pop piece like 2008’s “A-Punk”, it’s not baroque pop like 2009’s “While You Wait for the Others” and doesn’t have the tone of the decade-best “All My Friends,” but it stands tall with these songs.  The reflective song and powerful voice push “Don’t Do It” into such elite company, and deep into your mind for months and maybe years to come.  Give it a listen, and enjoy the best fruit of such a good year.