Welcome, friends, to Rankstravaganza 2010, because it’s not the Internet without subjective lists.
It is the duty of everyone with a music blog to make an end-of-the-year list of albums. Why? Hey, who am I to question the order of things? All I know is I have been called, and I will answer with a ranking of my 15 favorite albums of the year.
Why 15? Because I couldn’t narrow it down to 10, OK?
15. Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady
Starting a list of “best albums” with The Hold Steady’s fifth LP feels wrong on a certain level, because for the first time the Brooklyn band delivered a song-cycle that didn’t feel essential and failed to gain momentum. All the elements of a classic Hold Steady album are seemingly present — memorable, evocative choruses and more classic guitar riffs than a Thin Lizzy tribute band — but none of it coalesced. I felt no need to immerse myself in Craig Finn’s lyrics the way I did with Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America. But you know what? Any fan is going to find at least two songs on Heaven is Whenever that rank among his or her favorite Hold Steady tracks. For me, it was “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J,” and the album just barely coasts by on the strength of those tunes.
Download: “Hurricane J”
My Favorite Track: “Hurricane J.” Finn has proven time and again he can write a damn good tune about messed up kids. This tune is written from the perspective of a guy who’s trying to break up with a one-woman disaster whose parents “didn’t name her for a saint, they named her for a storm.”
14. Transference, Spoon
Just in case you thought five near-flawless, highly regarded albums in a row was too much to ask for, Spoon is here to prove it can be done. The best-reviewed musical act of the 2000s continued its streak into the new decade with an album that pushed limits and toyed with the very qualities that make Spoon Spoon. “Who Makes Your Money” is built on a synth loop so heavy with delay that the song is half over before listeners feel like they’ve found sure footing in the Austin band’s usual tight, rhythmic groove. Singer Britt Daniel’s voice is periodically chopped and processed. Heck, the band’s transmission from “The Mystery Zone” ends so abruptly, I was ready to call up Amazon and claim that the MP3 file they’d sold me was corrupted. The result is like some good old American rhythm and blues got sucked through a black hole, reassembled by aliens and sent back to Earth to find its creator.
Stream it: Click here
My Favorite Track: “Written in Reverse.” Built on a pounding interaction between piano and electric guitar that has all the subtlety of a construction site, it’s the perfect illustration of Spoon’s fascination with rhythm. Just when you think it’s going to quit, it punches in for some overtime.
13. Light Chasers, Cloud Cult
Speaking of bands getting all spacey, Minnesota music/art/environmentalism collective Cloud Cult left earth and blasted into orbit for its 10th studio album. Leader Craig Minowa’s whimsical, bittersweet sensibilities remain the driving force, but he is no longer mourning the death of his young son, a tragedy that loomed over the band’s last few albums. A new addition to the Minowa family seems to have helped, as the delicate lullaby “You Were Born” attests. Against a soundtrack of orchestral pop with touches of folk and electronica, the album is framed by a concept about space travelers finding the energy to continue exploring. It can get overwhelmingly precious at times — if hearing the phrase “a belly full of bumble bees” sung through a vocoder is a deal-breaker for you, don’t bother — but mostly Light Chasers sets course for a stirring, life-affirming journey.
My Favorite Track: “Running With the Wolves.” Full of shotgun drums and guitars that float like campfire embers, it’s the perfect escape song for folks feeling the urge to reconnect with nature and leave their “cubicles in little flaming piles.”
12. Personal Life, The Thermals
The Portland power trio was responsible for my favorite album of 2009, so expectations were unreasonably high for this follow-up. Personal Life didn’t quite meet them, but it’s a fine collection that still showcases Hutch Harris’ ability to crank out smart, three-minute, pop-punk gems. Harris tempered his guitar attack a bit so that some songs ride mostly on Kathy Foster’s Pixies-style basslines. He did not, however, tone down the sarcastic wit. Here Harris turns his skeptical eye toward love and romance, and — much like his take on religion with 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine — he finds a lot of empty promises and tyranny but also maybe a need to believe.
My Favorite Track: “I’m Gonna Change Your Life.” The opening song’s churning tempo turns the promise of a new relationship into more of a threat.
11. If I Had a Hi-Fi, Nada Surf
Cover albums don’t usually make best-of lists (unless they have a picture of Johnny Cash on the front). The three guys in Nada Surf, however, did everything right in putting out their power-pop interpretations of 12 songs by other artists. Song selection is half the battle, and it helps that they mostly stick to cuts by such highly regarded but relatively obscure acts as Bill Fox and The Go-Betweens. The only really well-known hit the Brooklyn band tackles is Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Even then they make it their own rather than trying to copy the sound of the original, which is, of course, the other half of the cover-album battle. If I Had a Hi-Fi sounds just like a Nada Surf album — always a welcome proposition — even if Nada Surf didn’t write any of it.
My Favorite Track: “Bright Side.” Nada Surf finds a shiny pop song buried in the helter-skelter, low-fi, original version by San Diego band Soft Pack, keeping the breakneck tempo but layering lots of bright guitar and three-part harmonies.
10. The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), Janelle Monáe
An R&B concept album loosely based on German silent-film director Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis, describing a future where an authoritarian society has outlawed dancing? I was skeptical — right up until I heard “Tightrope.” It took only a few seconds for me to become part of the growing chorus cheering the Atlanta singer’s ambitious debut. The ArchAndroid was recorded inside some sort of space-time anomaly where the the past, present and future of soul music collide. The album doesn’t have any filler, technically — all 18 tracks are part of some sort of symphonic vision Monáe had in mind — but it loses some of its propulsive, danceable energy in the second half.
My Favorite Track: “Tightrope.” Um, everybody loves this track, and radio ought to be playing the fuck out of it right now. I mean, Monáe knocks it out of the park. It features a typically amazing verse from OutKast’s Big Boi, who rhymes “NASDAQ” with “ass crack.” It’s got a good beat and I can dance to it. What else do you want, programmers?
9. Plastic Beach, Gorillaz
When defining the entity behind the songs gets this convoluted, no wonder it’s hard to wrap one’s head around Plastic Beach, the third postmodern, genre-spanning project by an evolving, international group of multimedia collaborators and cartoon avatars as conceived by British musician Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett. So let’s forget for a moment all the post-apocalyptic backstory about sky pirates and an island made of the detritus of consumerism, and let’s just focus on the music. As an album, it works better than anything Gorillaz has done thus far. Once fans get over the fact that no track is as instantly enchanting as “Clint Eastwood” or “Feel Good Inc.,” they’ll find Plastic Beach is a more purposeful, rewarding blend of moody synth-pop, dub and hip hop. Albarn’s melancholy vocals take a backseat to an eclectic circus of guests, including Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music and an ’80s microwave-meal commercial.
Stream it: Click here
My Favorite Track: “Sweepstakes.” This song is a puzzle, and at first the listener is given only a few pieces so that it’s impossible to figure out what’s really going on. Elements are gradually added until, as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble fades in, you can finally figure out what key the darn thing is in. Then Mos Def switches up his delivery, and everything falls into place. It’s a fascinating study of how we process music.
8. False Priest, Of Montreal
After the scattershot madness of 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, Of Montreal mastermind Kevin Barnes returned with a newfound focus on making pop songs. Oh, there’s still plenty of the left-field synth effects, big vocabulary words and overtly sexual weirdness that has defined the Athens, Georgia, band’s last few albums, but a duet with Solange Knowles that features the lyrics “you look like a playground to me, playa” is an undeniable step toward more mainstream sensibilities. There’s also more guitar muscle and studio polish (the latter thanks to the participation of producer Jon Brion). The songs are equally divided between Barnes singing (in falsetto, of course) about how his girl is either the best thing to ever happen to him or a psycho-bitch who threw his betta fish out the window. The lack of a clear storyline makes all this relationship drama seem less autobiographical and more like just a collection of freaky-deaky songs to get a groove on.
Download: “Coquet Coquette”
My Favorite Track: “Sex Karma.” For you music theory fans out there, you can look forward to how the tension Barnes creates by starting the melody on the major 7th of the scale resolves during the instrumental portions of the verses. The rest of you can puzzle over how well the pairing with Beyoncé’s sister works and whether Barnes is making some sort of ironic statement or genuinely trying to write a pop song. (Hint: It’s the latter.)
7. Wake Up the Nation, Paul Weller
“Get your face off the Facebook and hang up the phone,” Engand’s 52-year-old “Modfather” barks on the title track, and yet there’s nothing fuddy-duddy about Weller’s 10th solo album. It’s a fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll record that balances experimental flourishes with hooks aplenty, creating something far more vital than any of his contemporaries have put out recently. Before this album, I, like most Americans, was entirely ignorant of Weller’s prolific career, which included fronting punk band The Jam in the ’70s and pop group The Style Council in the ’80s. Wake Up the Nation, which careens from Bowie-esque psychedelia to percussive noise-pop, makes me want to explore his whole discography.
My Favorite Track: “No Tears to Cry.” Weller embraces his inner Tom Jones. The wall-of-sound soul on this track is so genuine, I’ve played it for people who literally asked if it was some forgotten classic from the ’60s.
6. A Badly Broken Code, Dessa
Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a china doll in the bullpen. As the lone female member of Minneapolis punk-hop (hey, I can make up genres, too) collective Doomtree, Dessa writes incisive, intellectual rhymes and pulls no punches. With a delivery that betrays her roots in spoken-word poetry, she begins her debut with a meditation on how her younger brother helped quiet the emotional storms she felt as a child — all over a hammered-dulcimer beat. It’s an ideal introduction to the album’s melancholy-yet-playful tone and unorthodox approach to rap. Even when treading such well-worn topics as ex-boyfriends, her songs are full of entertaining turns of phrase, unexpected metaphors and engrossing storytelling. And she can sing, supplying her own hooks and even turning in a pair of a cappella numbers. Frankly, I’m smitten.
My Favorite Track: “Matches to Paper Dolls,” which, as far as I know, is the only rap song to contain a shout-out to a Gabriel García Márquez novel. Backed by exotic strings, Dessa raps about the dangers of reigniting old flames. Allow me to transcribe the chorus:
If you’re asking, I can’t say no
Just one more chapter our book won’t close
And I know it’s madness to play these odds
It’s like giving matches to paper dolls
See? That’s just good lyricism.
5. Expo 86, Wolf Parade
The members of Wolf Parade announced a few weeks ago that they would be going on an “indefinite hiatus” following a few shows next year. Given that the Montreal band’s dual singer-songwriters, Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, each have side projects — Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown, respectively — to keep them busy, it’s not especially encouraging news for fans. But at least Wolf Parade (potentially) went out on a high note. Expo 86 — named after the World’s Fair in Vancouver, which all members of the band attended in 1986 as young Canucks — sets an example of everything modern indie rock should be, full of frenzy, melody and growling synthesizer riffs. The band starts the album by popping the clutch and launching right into a barrage of drums as Krug, in his usual jittery yelp, announces, “I was a dreamcatcher hanging in the window of a minivan parked by the water’s edge.” That off-kilter velocity rarely lets up until the final note.
My Favorite Track: “Yulia,” a heartbreaking song based on what I’m pretty sure is a bogus urban myth. Boeckner was inspired by a documentary he saw on the Soviet space program, including secret attempts to beat America to the moon. He sings from the perspective of a Cosmonaut, flung into the nothingness of space due to a miscalculation, thinking of his beloved back on Earth. There’s no other song I listened to more in 2010.
4. Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, OK Go
Though mainly known for their ingenious, viral music videos, before this year, OK Go was also known for making slicker-than-slick power-pop. For their third album, the Chicago natives (now based in L.A.) recruited Dave Friddman, the producer synonymous with the overdriven, psychedelic-pop sound of The Flaming Lips and MGMT. He fuzzed and muddied up the band’s sound something good, throwing in the occasional bell choir. The band, meanwhile, brought the funk with additional bassline groove and by letting singer Damian Kulash let loose with some sensual screeching. Maybe it’s a bit reductive to label the album “Prince meets The Flaming Lips meets Fountains of Wayne,” but anybody who’s a fan of all three of those things — and that includes me — really ought to give it a try. Trust me.
Stream it: Click here.
My Favorite Track: OK, it’s not technically an album track, but I can’t get enough of the version of “This Too Shall Pass” that the band recorded live with the University of Notre Dame’s marching band. When the full band and children’s choir join in at the end, the arrangement is just so full of life. It never fails to remind me that you can’t keep letting life get you down, you can’t stop these kids from dancing (and why would you want to?) and that this, too, shall pass.
3. This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem
I really did try to get into LCD Soundsystem back when everyone in the world was declaring Sound of Silver the best album of 2007. For whatever reason, James Murphy’s singer-songwriter approach to dance music just didn’t click. This year, Murphy released a song called “Drunk Girls” whose most salient feature is the phrase “Drunk Girls!” shouted repeatedly. What can I say? It hooked me, and it convinced me to give LCD Soundsystem another chance. This time, I fell for Murphy’s self-aware schtick as the weary, reluctant king of the hipsters. I wasn’t even bothered by the fact that Murphy seems to think 9 minutes is a totally reasonable length for a song. Point is, the man can sing, get bodies moving and write a clever, self-deprecating lyric. Why wasn’t I listening to this before?
My Favorite Track: “Drunk Girls.” I know a lot of fans would prefer if the album skipped right from track 1 to 3, but “Drunk Girls” is far from being a brainless party anthem intended to curry favor with the titular inebriated ladies and/or those who like to hit on them. Would a brainless party anthem have a couplet like the following?
Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut
It comes back, but it’s never the same
Admit it: That’s just a bit too weird for your standard kegger.
2. Majesty Shredding, Superchunk
The members of Superchunk had plenty to keep them busy in the last decade: running one of the most influential indie record labels, signing Arcade Fire, raising families — everything except making Superchunk albums. With the exception of the odd EP or soundtrack contribution, fans had been waiting nine years for something new from North Carolina’s most respected Alternative Nation survivors. Superchunk went into the studio older, wiser but no less ready to rock. They emerged with a live-wire album of new material that matches their best efforts of the ’90s in melody and ferocity, sounding like they’d taken weeks rather than years off. With 11 tracks worth of riff-heavy, distorted guitar pop, Superchunk maintains an energy and consistency that most alt-rock reunion attempts (cough, cough, Hole) only wish they could achieve.
Stream it: Click here.
My Favorite Track: “Everything at Once.” The album closes with “a song about nothing and everything at once,” fading out on a chorus of whoo-oos and the type of melodic guitar solo that no one does anymore.
1. Together, The New Pornographers
Earlier this year, a Christian college regrettably located in my native state canceled a performance by The New Pornographers after parents and alumni objected to the group’s name. The most ridiculous part of this whole affair, as many writers pointed out, is that the Canadian band’s music is so darn joyful that it’s hard to imagine anyone who actually took the time to listen to a song reacting with anything other than a huge grin and some head bobbing. A.C. Newman & Co. returned with a fifth album of smile-inducing power-pop, and while there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Together (including the title), it’s the work of pop craftspeople at the top of their game. Every track is perfectly textured, weaving together hand claps, staccato piano, chunky guitar and stacks of vocals (including the international treasure that is Neko Case’s voice). For fans who found the band’s last album a bit too subdued, Together reinstates a bit of the manic energy that characterized earlier albums while maintaining a level of maturity — at least as much maturity as a band with a name like The New Pornographers can muster.
My Favorite Track: “Moves.” The album kicks off with an army of sawing cellos that’s right out of the ELO playbook, which is fine by me.
Honorable mentions: “Infinite Arms,” Band of Horses; “Antifogmatic,” Punch Brothers; “My Dinosaur Life,” Motion City Soundtrack; “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire; “A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C),” Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Still Processing: “Body Talk,” Robyn; “The Lady Killer,” Cee Lo Green; “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Kanye West