BEST ALBUMS OF 2010: 5-1

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Here we go…

05. Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club

That’s right – it’s time to gush even more about the most addictive record of 2010.  I’ve already discussed the ultra-strong songs, the youthful exuberance and the driving rhythms.  What else could be said?  If you’re not on board yet, I’d suggest trying the superb singles “What You Know” and “Something Good Can Work.”  Now consider that this is their debut album and that the band is very young.  Many “mature” artists can’t make something so polished and cohesive.

For some, this pick will seem silly and void of real value.  In a way that argument is partially true.  The songs deal in very basic romantic emotion and the band doesn’t really break new ground.  Yet after making countless versions of my Best Albums list, I couldn’t put them anywhere else.  Sometimes music is just good and simply enjoyableTourist History is that for me and endlessly on repeat.

04. This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem

It’s hard to follow up on a record that contained the greatest song of the 2000s.  James Murphy doesn’t even bother really – This is Happening stands tall without anything like “All My Friends.”  But it’s better that way.  Instead of trying to recapture that brilliance, he keeps moving forward, introducing more sounds, better lyrics, better singing and powerful personal discussion across a full album.

What makes this record so amazing is how each song packs a punch.  Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” hits you upside the head when the drums kick in.  “Drunk Girls” is a sustained song-long rush.  “One Touch” has a wonderful groove.  “All I Want” is the saddest tune ever done by LCD and you feel for Murphy.  “I Can Change” feels naked and exposed.  “Pow Pow” is brilliant fun.  They all have something, and that’s why I can’t get away from this record.  It is personal to LCD Soundsystem, yet you can honestly sympathize and that connection is genuinely moving.

03. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

Different versions of this list have The Suburbs all over the place, but I can’t really justify the record outside the top three.  Quite simply this is one of the most complete albums I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.  No song, no sound feels out of place in the grand scheme of things.  Win Butler and company have built on the sonic foundations of Neon Bible and done something stunning.  Much like Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, the beauty offered here is something to marvel at.

Of course the 2,000 pound gorilla in the room still stands: this is no Funeral.  It lacks the true hard-hitters like “Rebellion (Lies)” or the “Neighborhood” tracks.  But that doesn’t matter.  It isn’t Funeral and that’s the point.  Arcade Fire have moved in a new direction and gained a great deal of artistic merit in doing so.  This is a triumphant release by a rising super-band and deserves the praise it has been dealt.  The Suburbs is a fantastic record and you need to hear it.

02. Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene

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Grandiose has lost so much value as a phrase in music.  Everybody talks about how big a sound is, often citing arena acts that reach the biggest audiences.  But here, the sheer effort and enthusiasm of such a large group pushes Forgiveness Rock Record into an overwhelming place.  The sounds are layered from everywhere and the song styles are varied.  The huge build in “Chase Scene” is insane.  “Art House Director” is upbeat and exciting.  The productions values are phenomenal and the music is clear.

But you know what?  It doesn’t matter how big and exciting this is – the music itself is phenomenal.  I love the strong drums, the exciting guitars, the boisterous strings and the blaring horns.  It all blends to a tremendous point that few records can achieve: the songs are excellent standalone and the album is even better as a whole.  Yes, it’s just as good as You Forgot it People.  And that’s saying something.

01. High Violet by The National

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Here we are with the best record of 2010.  Just everything about it works.  There is a real confidence in the band, exploring emotional realms and building a real sense of atmosphere.  Dark drums, tight bass and simmering guitars make every song consistent.  And that really matters here – there is no song worth skipping because they all bring so much to the table.  The album supports itself, making even the super high points (“Conversation 16” and “Lemonworld”) add to a much bigger whole.

So what makes this the clear top record of 2010?  For me it’s the details.  Matt Berninger is at his haunting best with vocals.  The lyrics are somber yet complex and draw you further into each piece.  The strings in many songs are just enough to push the whole thing over the edge.

Yes, High Violet is that good.  It is memorable, powerful and will convert you to following The National.  Feel the reward and explore the brilliance.

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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.

Review: High Violet by The National

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Rating: 9.8/10

I really didn’t like this album.  I place some of the blame on me, but much on High Violet.  I finally got this album in an absolute downpour of music.  Flashy stuff from LCD Soundsystem and Janelle Monae were quick to get my attention, and I’ve already commented on “Compliments” brought me back to Band of Horses.

It took me a long time to finally sit down and listen to High Violet with real purpose.  Basic overviews left me uncertain, particularly with such an album low-point tacked on the front (“Terrible Love”).  I thought it was like a cheap imitation of Boxer.  I just couldn’t get myself to like it.

Then it clicked.  The key for me was hearing this in a quiet place with a decent set of headphones.  Unlike much in rock today, louder isn’t necessarily better here.  Instead, The National have refined the darkest, most somber moments from their past work.  Everything is very quiet, very textured.  After the intro song, everything operates in shadows.  The effect is mystifying and allows rewards with each listen.

But many bands are rewarding – why is this one so praised?  We can thank the musical composition and the lyrical content.  There are dense layers here, but never they’re never needless.  Instead there is a real atmosphere about this record.  Sometimes that term is condescending.  Here, it’s the perfect compliment: the album is sonically cohesive, while managing to explore.  Pianos, deep thudding drums, big bass, and appropriately sparse guitar all work well to paint a sonic picture.

Lyrical content is the next step on the path to excellence.  The singing is contained this time – tasteful background singing is met by a beautiful tenor lead (and this time without pointless yelping).  The words also manage to find reasonable meaning.  Everything seems of normal life and observation (yes, even the brains part), but is described in a slightly vague way.  While seemingly self-indulgent, the poetic technique works here as the sounds bring the rest of the mood.

Perhaps the best praise I can offer High Violet is my lack of a favorite song.  It’s not for lack of trying – I’ve been looking for one representative piece.  But each time I hear this record, I think “wow, this is a fantastic song,” only to repeat the act about four minutes later.  There are little moments all over the album – the part about the “hole in the middle” in “Anyone’s Ghost” where the cellos strike, the intro distortion to “Little Faith,” the light “ahhs” of the background vocals in most every song.  Then there is the line about the money in “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” or maybe the exhausted refrain in “Lemonworld,” and the chilling “silver cities” of “Conversation 16.”  Each song brings something, and manages to impress for the whole track.

I can’t overstate how suddenly and drastically this album has changed for me.  It went from a brooding failure to follow up on Boxer to a clear frontrunner in this already-packed year of music.  High Violet is both the most consistent and impressive release from The National.  It takes some time, but this is a must-own record.