Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: Albums

10. Chromeo – Business Casual

This album marks an embrace of the implicit 70s pop elements that had always been present in their sound. While previous albums were mostly 80s dance inspired, this one is a bit more Hall and Oates style, and it generally works really well. It's a bit less kitschy and ironic than previous albums, and the best songs here really showcase Chromeo's strength as song writers. It's not the production that's attention grabbing, it's the ultra smooth melodies and really fun lyrical conceits. The lush string arrangements and wonderful disco bass keep things moving.

9. The New Pornographers – Together

A couple of my longtime favorite bands (notably Belle and Sebastian) released albums this year that weren't notably different from their previous work in form or quality that just didn't hit me for whatever reason. This album is to some extent one of those. I absolutely love the first three New Pornographer albums, but to some extent, I feel like I've absorbed everything they can do. That said, this album stands well next to those first three, hitting power pop highs on “Crash Years,” and going more anthemic on “We End Up Together.” If not quite as classic as their first three albums, it's still a really satisfying set.

8. Mark Ronson and the Business Intl. - Record Collection

Ronson follows up the great 60s inspired covers set Version with the 80s inspired Record Collection. Full of really great synth pop songs, set off with some well chosen hip hop guest spots, this album sounds very fresh, while still paying respect to Duran Duran and other 80s bands. I love the attack of opening track “Bang Bang Bang.” The vocal contributions of ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall are a highlight, particularly on the soaring chorus of “Hey Boy.”

7. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

A bit more downbeat and low key than previous Gorillaz albums, this one took a while to grow on me, but after listening to it several times, it's clear there's a lot of real beauty in the album. Albarn's orchestration is lush and epic at times, and his combination of traditionally rock instrumentation and atmosphere with well chosen hip hop beats and cameos never worked better. It's not about the clash of styles, it's about their seamless integration. Highlights include the sugar high of “Superfast Jellyfish” and driving bass of “Stylo,” but the album's great moment is the entrance of an electronic hop hop beat on “Empire Ants,” and the layers of dreamy vocal layered on top. It's a very cohesive album, and a great progression for Albarn and the “band.”

6. Bryan Ferry – Olympia

I really got into Roxy Music this year after spending the past couple of years listening only to their first glam rock album. I was surprised to find that their later work was even better, particularly the enveloping atmosphere of Avalon. Olympia picks up the sound of late period Roxy Music and applies Bryan Ferry's unparalleled voice to a series of lush soundscapes you can get lost in. His epic transformation of “Song to the Siren” is the high point, but the driving, U2 in a steam room sound of “Heartache by Numbers” jumps out as well. Like a lot of the albums on the list, it's throwing back to an 80s sound, but doing so in a way that emphasizes the timelessness of the best of that music. Ferry was making it back then, and he's still making it now.

5. Goldfrapp – Head First

It really bothered me when Goldfrapp's previous album, “Seventh Tree” came out, and people wrote about how this one must be more confessional and real, since it was based around acoustic instrumentation, not synthesizers. To me, the synthesizer can be one of the most emotional instruments out there, and a lot of the songs that really hit me on a deep level are based around electronic soundscapes. Head First drew attention for its big 80s sounding pop hits like “Rocket” or “Alive,” and those songs are fantastic. There's nothing at all wrong with doing a big, fun pop song, but the songs that jump out to me on this album are the ones that use the same style of instrumentation with a slightly darker tone to make for an even more intense emotional experience. “Hunt” and “I Wanna Life” are the ones that jump out to me. “Hunt” uses a wonderful acapella bass line, taking full advantage of Alison's unique voice. “I Wanna Life” is a bit more triumphant, but it's an earned triumph, still a pop song, but one that goes the full gamut of emotion.

4. MGMT – Congratulations

A hugely ambitious, and at times frustrating album, Congratulations is a really bold statement for a band that seemed reluctant to claim its role at the forefront of a zeitgeist. To be honest, I wish they had indulged their poppy side a bit more, and not run away from anthemic songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” But, I hugely respect the sonic experimentation and sheer amount of ideas on here. There's about twenty great songs on a ten song album, and that's both the blessing and curse of it. There are moments I wish went on longer, “Someone's Missing” in particular had epic potential, but seemed to end too soon. But, at its best, the sheer variety of sounds and approaches on here is a joy in and of itself. Not every track is great, but it's full of exhilarating moments from the surf rock crescendo that opens the album to the melodic close of “Congratulation.”

3. Scissor Sisters – Night Work

In most other years, this would be number one on this list. I already love the band's first two albums, but this takes it to a whole new level, consistently great from beginning to end, this is one of those albums where it feels like every song could be a breakout single. Fusing 70s disco rhythms with gnarly 80s bass and some harder rock influences, it's topped off by Jake Shears' amazing falsetto voice. The dancefloor workout “Any Which Way” is an early highlight, with a chorus bass line that tears things up, but you could just as easily point to the pounding bass of “Whole New Way,” disco ecstasy of Sex and Violence of the simultaneously sweet and still uptempo sentiments of “Skin Tight” or “Fire With Fire.” It's capped with a prog disco rock epic “Invisible Light” that takes their sound in a slightly satanic direction and manages to both encompass and go beyond everything that's come before.

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Probably the best band in the world today puts out an album that only reinforces how vital and exciting Arcade Fire is. This album is a suite, full of gorgeous songs, energy and yearning that just sound massive. “Empty Room” is a great example of the album's strengths, a song that's bursting with energy, like a firework about to explode. Regine Chassagne jumps out as the album's greatest strength, and her voice is the soaring counterpoint to the instrumental churn. This is another album that in almost any other year would be number one on this list.

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It's been pretty remarkable to watch this album come out and get to know an album that already feels like a timeless classic. It's unanimously been chosen as best album of the year, and there's really no way to argue. A lot of bands on here are doing work that's good, even great, but feels like somebody just doing their thing. With Kanye, as with a lot of really great artists, there's a drive to not just do good work, but a need to be the absolute best. It can lead to idiot moments, like the outburst at the VMAs, but it's that same burning desire that drives him to make an album that goes so far beyond what anyone else in hip hop is attempting that it makes it look like virtually every other artist out there isn't even trying. He's taking what worked in the past and pushing it further, as on “Devil in a New Dress,” and creating an entirely new kind of epic hip hop song in “Dark Fantasy” and “All of the Lights.”

The opening moments of “Dark Fantasy” announce this as not just a bunch of songs but an album length artistic statement, one that's starting off with the startling slow motion explosion of beats. This is an album that rocks harder than any rock album in recent memory, as on the guitar solos in “Devil in a New Dress” or the prog stomp of “Power.” This is how I imagine hip hop would have sounded if it had come out of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd instead of Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone.

When you've got an album so good that even a Chris Rock comedy skit feels like a heartbreaking moment, you know this is something special. I love all the previous Kanye albums, but this is an artistic leap so massive, it's hard to think where he could go from here. Even if it's not a concept album per se, the songs all feel of a piece and flow together such that I would point more to great 'moments' on the album than I would spotlight specific songs. It's a real journey, and just as the opening is the perfect primer for the journey to come, “Lost in the World” is a perfect capper for everything that's come before, a delirious journey out of the darkness and into a kind of acceptance. It's an epic tribal celebration that incorporates elements of contemporary indie rock, gospel choir, tribal drums and a spoken word 60s piece to bring it all to a conclusion. This is a real work of art, and an album that I think will be topping best of the decade lists nine years from now.