2010 IN REVIEW - MUSIC (part 2) Top 20 Albums

But First: 20 Good records that didn’t quite make my list:
Bad Books - Bad Books
Beach House - Teen Dream
Best Coast - Crazy for You
Caribou - Swim
Cloud Cult - Light Chasers
Damien Jurado - Saint Bartlett
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
The Drums - The Drums
The Head and the Heart - The Head and the Heart
I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody’s Business - The World We Know
Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
Los Campesinos! - Romance is Boring
Matt & Kim - Sidewalks
MGMT - Congratulations
New Pornographers - Together
Sean Carey - All We Grow
She & Him - Volume Two
Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
The Walkmen - Lisbon
Wolf Parade - Expo 86

Second: Not only have I ranked my favorite albums; I also rate their accessibility on a 1-5 scale, and I even suggest alcoholic beverages to enjoy alongside them, fancy-restaurant-menu-style.
To help you understand my new Accessibility ratings, here’s how I would rate some pretty consistent artists:
5 – Coldplay. Your mom will like it.
4 – Death Cab for Cutie. Still pretty mainstream; you’ll like it unless you dislike the genre.
3 – (late) Modest Mouse. Not for everyone, but not too weird either.
2 – Radiohead. Definitely takes some getting used to.
1 – Animal Collective. “That’s music?” Enjoyment may require considerable effort.

The Top 20 albums of 2010:

20) Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
Sort of like TV on the Radio’s “Dear Science,” this record is all over the map sound-wise. At times it moves pretty slowly, but for the most part that’s a good thing. Best song: “World Sick”
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Gin Martini

19) The Head and the Heart - The Head and the Heart
Your head might want to dismiss it as a sound-alike copycat (it obviously cribs Fleet Foxes, The Avett Brothers and Dr. Dog). But your heart wants to listen to it again and again, because it’s excellent. No contest.
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Coffee w/ Baileys

18. Shout Out Louds - Work
In an off-year for the Dodos, and one in which Wolf Parade’s release lacked luster, we still had at least one fun-pop album to soundtrack our summer patio-parties (apart from the crowded bandwagon of mediocre Pitchfork-friendly low-fi beach-pop—I’m looking at you, Wavves). The high-energy, occasionally shoe-gazey “Work” doesn’t translate as well for the winter months, but so what? I love “1999” and “Candle Burned Out” no less.
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Screwdriver

17. The Courage - Fearful Bones
Noah Gundersen has always written beautiful chill folk songs, and even the occasional rollicking guitar-thumper. But since he picked up a minimalist drummer and his violin-touting sister, his sound has totally broken free of any constraints it had before. “Fearful Bones” is still easy to listen to, but it’s an all-grown-up album that takes grown-up risks, and it confidently keeps us guessing.
Accessibility: 4.5/5
Pair with: House Red by the Magnificent Wine Company

16. Broken Bells - Broken Bells
James Mercer’s (The Shins) and famed producer Danger Mouse’s collaboration had promise. And a few of the songs—the ones that sound like they could have come from a Shins record—were among the year’s best. But I’m still hoping Mercer will get the old band back together next year. Listen to “October.”
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Hard Cider

15. The Morning Benders - Big Echo
“Big Echo” sees The Morning Benders reaching beyond their old habit of just sounding like The Shins, and while that stride has resulted in some great and relatively unique summer beach-pop, it’s the moments where I can still pick out James Mercer’s influence (in songwriting and tone) that I appreciate the most.
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Gin & Tonic

14. Jonsi - Go
The former Sigur Ros frontman’s new ‘solo’ album would fit in better at a wedding than a funeral. As good as we know he is at epic, sad, mysterious-because-they’re-in-Icelandic compositions, that’s almost a bummer. Jonsi’s ESL lyrics are simplistic but easy enough to ignore, and his new arrangements are a riot. Not many albums attempt to capture the feeling of Spring, but “Go” does it so capably it seems easy.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Mimosas.

13. No Age - Everything in Between
This post-punk, low-fi two-piece has made its best album yet. Experiments in layered guitar noise combine perfectly with an under-control whirlwind of drums in most of the (surprisingly polished) songs, which address the difficulty and general unpleasantness of growing up and growing old. “Glitter” is my favorite.
Accessibility: 2/5
Pair with: Gentleman Jack; make it a double.

12. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
They Wanted a Hit, so LCDS’s James Murphy gave them the gloriously annoying-but-catchy “Drunk Girls,” which “makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember (listening to “I Can Change”) the feelings of a real-life, emotional teenager. Then you think again.” But not for long. “This is Happening” may not rival 2008’s “The Sound of Silver.” But it’s still great in its own hyper-intellectual, I-miss-the-80s way. “Love is an astronaut; it comes back but it’s never the same.”
Accessibility: 1/5
Pair with: Whatever those drunk girls had.

11. Spoon - Transference
Is there another band as consistent as Spoon? They comfortably walk the thin line between bands that succeed by constantly reinventing themselves and those who keep making the same album 2-year-cycle after 2-year-cycle. They’re at home in the Mystery Zone.
“Transference” experiments plenty, but Spoon is so good at being itself by now that the catchiest, most straightforward tracks (mostly frontloaded) are ultimately the most rewarding.
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Screwdriver

10. James Vincent McMorrow - Early in the Morning
One of Ireland’s top emerging folk-pop talents, James Vincent McMorrow’s chief appeal is that he sounds so much like artists we already love. His swelling song structures and backup instrumentation borrow from Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes. His perpetual falsetto is just as ethereal as Bon Iver’s, though his lyrics aren’t so mysterious or poetic. And his songs are all so immediately pleasant to listen to that concerns about his originality probably just won’t occur to you.
Accessibility: 5/5
Pair with: Chimay

9. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
[watch the 34 minute music video “Runaway” here]

If you haven’t noticed, Kanye West’s new record has done very well for itself. I and most people I know have been mystified by the album’s critical success—not just because KW is still universally recognized as a huge douche, but because he’s only an average lyricist and he leans too heavily on guest appearances and vocal modulation. But I’ve done some reading and listening and pondering, and I think I’ve got it figured out.

The intelligent reviews of Twisted Fantasy basically take a deconstructionist approach. They begin (vaguely) with the New Critical theory of “the death of the author,” which for reviewers’ purposes just means that an artist’s intentions don’t have to mirror a critic’s appreciation. (The negative term for the same is the Intentional Fallacy.) So in other words, it’s okay to like something for ironic reasons.

The reason that’s important here is that West’s artistic intent is a total joke. I mean, Twisted Fantasy stands up pretty well as a hip-hop record—catchy beats, candy-sweet pop choruses, high-profile cameos. It’s got excess written all over it. But at some point you’re going to begin hearing the words, and without a deconstructionist’s detachment they’re either hysterical or totally depressing.
West’s awkwardly intimate lyrics (over)expose him as:
  • still super arrogant – “My presence is a present; kiss my ass”
  • the opposite of down-to-earth – “Can we get much higher?”
  • still a little racist – “tantrums based off the way we was branded: face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon” (sic)
  • a sex addict – “24/7/365, pussy stays on my mind”
  • an exhibitionist – “I sent this girl a picture of my dick”
  • misogynistic – “I’ll call you bitch for short”; “don’t know what it is with females, but I’m not too good with that shit”
  • sexually abusive – “in a bathroom, gripping you up, fucking and choking you”
  • and an out of control hypocrite – “I thought I was the asshole—I guess it’s rubbing off”
This shit is more messed up than any of Pedro the Lion’s fictitious songs about infidelity and addiction, and it’s (mostly) not fiction! Even when the lyrical intent is ironic (e.g. Kanye’s “toast to the douchebags”), Yeezy, as he’s content to be called, proves clearly that celebrities don’t have it all figured out. That’s not news, but he’s so obviously trying so hard to figure it out, and watching him uncover the little disillusionments of ordinary life for the first time is mesmerizingly pitiful.

In “Gorgeous,” for example, he discovers that spending money can’t give him lasting happiness. [“Ain’t no question: if I want it, I need it. / I can feel it slowly drifting away from me.”] In “Blame Game” he laments that a girl he slept with after his show is now “cheating” on him with her old boyfriend. Most earnestly, “Monster” finds him trying to come to terms with his ceaseless yearning for both love and notoriety. “I’m ’a need to see your fucking hands at the concert,” he pleads, before admitting that what he really craves, his “Achilles-heel” is “Love—I don’t get enough of it.” Because, as it turns out, when you’re rich and famous, people will try to be your friends for selfish reasons! Who can’t relate to his righteous anger at the “vampires and bloodsuckers…these niggas I’ve made millionaires.”

But he also seems to recognize that you can’t have your cake and eat it, and his innocent outrage—at the incompatibility of his capacious desires for fame and love—is so piteously infantile it’s downright touching. His desolate disillusionment (“I always find something wrong”) culminating in the heartbroken single “Runaway” reminded me of the murderous anger I felt as a six-year-old when my parents informed me I actually couldn’t move in to the Swiss Family Robinson tree house at Disney World. I coulda killed a bitch then, so I understand how bad it feels to have your dreams shattered. In the end, Kanye West isn’t so different from you and me.

Well…okay, taking a step back: In case you haven’t actually heard the record, I should probably clarify that this whole poignant feeling of entitlement is something I have read into the album. West sees things differently: “This pimp is at the top of Mount Olympus,” he extols, “this [album] is my Olympics.” The end of “Blame Game” is a funny-on-purpose Chris Rock monologue revering KW’s sexual prowess. “[I] got so much head, I woke up in Sleepy Hollow,” he jibes elsewhere. “Devil in a New Dress” is all about how religion can’t help Christian girls resist his charms. And, to top it all off, he actually says in “Gorgeous” that he’d like to “choke a South Park writer with a fish-stick.” [Cf. one of the all-time best episodes of television, ever]

Because for all the self-examination that must have gone into writing this record, KW honestly doesn’t get the joke! Much like Tommy Wiseau, the clueless schmuck who wrote, directed, and starred in that glorious clusterfuck of a movie known as The Room, West has created an artistic monument to his own ego, and his awkwardly earnest, too-personal-for-comfort lyrics are proof that he just can’t see the naked humor of his puerile situation. Because his ego is just so monumental, and because his album is a genuinely impressive piece of music—expertly mixed and thoughtfully structured—it couldn’t possibly be ridiculous!

But that same naked-emperor’s naivete is exactly why Twisted Fantasy is so winning. Just as The Room’s social ineptitude is what makes it so funny, West’s wildly ambitious and painstaking sonic shrine unto himself offers us a voyeuristic window on a (sym)pathetic human being—a guy denuded and disarmed whether he sees it or not—in a way he never could have pulled off if he’d been trying. So, a toast to the douchebags!
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Mai Tais / Booty Sweat

8. Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks
What impresses me most about Frightened Rabbit is the band’s ability to truncate so many various sounds into its post-rock style. This places them among the strongest artists in the genre, and probably my favorite vocals-inclusive post-rock band. “The Winter of Mixed Drinks” dresses straightforward 4/4 chord progressions in uncharacteristically pretty hooks, surrounding them with cavernous harmonies. All this lends an epic feeling to the album’s decidedly down-to-earth lyrics.
Accessibility: 3/5
Pair with: Car-Bombs

7. Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring
In one word, Horse Feathers is organic. The band’s four members play like a single, perfectly coordinated organism, and on “Thistled Spring” they reach sonic nirvana. No instrument is ever too present; no melody ever lacks a euphonious harmony. Without the rhythmic constraints of a drummer, frontman Justin Ringle’s percussive guitar strumming changes tempo naturally like heartbeats accelerating or slowing down, and the rest of the band is always in step. Ringle’s lyrics are nature-focused as usual, still more at home in the South than the Northwest; and of course that’s good. After two bleak, wintry records, “Thistled Spring” is a breath of warm air.
Accessibility: 4/5
Pair with: Sunshine Wheat-Ale

6. Sleigh Bells – Treats
Sleigh Bells is the Surge cola of contemporary bands—as frenetic and cavity-inducing (and addicting) as anything I listened to this year. The duo mixes ultra-low-fi noise-punk guitars with beat-based tweepop songwriting. It’s a setup calculated to grab Pitchfork by the balls, but as simple as it may be to trace Sleigh Bells’ roots, it isn’t easy to argue the band’s 35-minute sugar-rush of a debut album sounds like anything else.
Accessibility: 2.5/5
Pair with: Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade.

5. The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
Certainly the most dressed-down album on this list, “The Wild Hunt” is an amazing example of how much energy a single performer can bring to a record. Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson now has two albums and two EPs under his belt as a solo artist, and the experience shows. The rapid-fire guitar finger-picking is still first-rate, and his gravelly voice sounds more like Dylan than ever. Occasional banjo or piano input from punctuates the already solid formula, and Matsson holds our interest for even longer, all by himself.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Fat-Tire Amber Ale

4. Vampire Weekend – Contra
I’ll admit it; I definitely didn’t believe that Vampire Weekend—2008’s Flavor of the Year—would ever release more than one memorable album. How sweet it is to be wrong. The best sophomore album since “Room on Fire” by the Strokes, “Contra” has everything I loved about VW’s debut—sharp-edged guitar hooks, subdued world-music influences, and Ivy League lyrics—and it’s twice as easy to get into. Instant singles “White Sky,” “Giving Up the Gun” and “Horchata” are still stuck in my head a full year after the album leaked last December.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Um, Horchata. Doi-oy-oy.

3. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of ADZ
[NOTE: ADZ is meant to be pronounced odds. It’s not actually a word though; it’s a term Sufjan made up to denote the end times, combining the Latin acronym A.D. (the year of our Lord) with the letter Z (the end).]

Gone are the outsized orchestral arrangements of “Illinois”, replaced now with synths and sample-based beats, even a little bit of auto-tuning. The songs of “The Age of ADZ” are no longer vehicles for history and folk-stories, but Suf’s attempts to process lost love through the life and art of a nutty southern ‘prophet’ named Royal Robertson. It’s deeply mysterious, certainly his most opaque project thus far, but rewarding; it’s an album that gets better each time you listen to it.

The familiar-sounding, highly listenable “Futile Devices” launches first thing into exploring the difficulty of communication: “I would say I love you, but saying it aloud is hard,” sings a weary Sufjan. “Words are futile devices.” Beginning at the brink of giving up, this is to be an album about love, and all the arguments and confusion that come with the territory.

But Sufjan’s feelings don’t always come through clearly, because “The Age of ADZ” is as much about the end times as it is about relationships. And except for the rather heavy-handed volcano metaphor Vesuvius, the connection is usually pretty tenuous. It’s rarely even clear who’s supposed to be speaking at any given point on the album, much less to whom. But I’ll take my shot in the dark nonetheless:

Sufjan begins with the most obvious correlation between love and eschatology: Losing someone you love is a traumatic and, well, apocalyptic experience. It happened to Royal Robertson and it seems (from the depth of feeling in these songs) that it happened to Sufjan too. “Why does it have to be so hard?” he asks in “Vesuvius”—because the deeper and more (um) volcanic your feelings are for someone, the harder it is to live without them.

So if a relationship is unraveling, do you try to make it work? or do you cut ties before you risk getting hurt even more? SS seems to address this very question of ADZ’s title track: “When it dies, it rots. / But when it lives, it gives it all it gots” (sic). Convoluted this may be, but it’s a really courageous sentiment: that as long as love is still there, you shouldn’t give up. That’s the point of connecting love to “eternal living”: it makes love matter, so much more than the hurt that comes with a broken heart.

In contrast to that insight is Sufjan’s other basic observation—that really loving another person can be as crazy and over-the-top as making apocalyptic predictions. “I have known you for just a little while.” he says, “but I feel I’ve known you … when the earth was split in fives.” Love makes us feel unreasonably and even dangerously close to others. It’s craziness to conceive of your connection with someone you’ve know a relatively short time in the terms of eternity.

But that’s what people do, and that’s where Sufjan finally lands too. “Boy,” says his dialogic countervoice in “Impossible Soul,” “we can do much more together.” And even as the final line concludes that they’ve made a mess of things, it’s trumped by the song’s earlier optimism: “It’s not so impossible.”
Accessibility: 2.5/5
Pair with: Long Island Iced Tea

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
It would not be the worst thing in the world if every band sounded just like Arcade Fire. Plenty have been trying since “Funeral” came out in 2004, but the Montreal original proves in 2010 that it’s still on top. It’s not easy for me to think of another album as immediately likeable as “The Suburbs.” So I won’t even try.

The album is about (you guessed it) life in suburban (North) America. That “Funeral” and “Neon Bible” were about the same makes it no less relevant. If anything, this is the top of Arcade Fire’s game. At least lyrically:
You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts.

It seemed strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive.
But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive.
All the feelings of alienation and decentralization you’d hope to find in a good suburbs record come through just fine (although Spike Jonze’s video for the title track helps shed some additional light on the ‘war against the suburbs’ going on in the background of most of the songs). Your idyllic neighborhoods won’t last forever, they seem to be saying, and on one level or another they must be right. Let’s just hope that when the end does come, the soundtrack is this good.
Accessibility: 5/5
Pair with: Dale’s Pale Ale

1. The National - High Violet
Matt Berninger’s squalid tales of urban fuckups, set in “the Manhattan valleys of the dead” contain his best lyrics to date, packed with spectacular one-liners like “It’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me.” And more importantly, the recording process the band developed while making “Boxer,” which made them infamous for compulsive revision and ruthless perfectionism, is pretty much a proven tactic now: “High Violet” does not make one false move. Every pitch-perfect moment lasts exactly as long as it needs to (except the chorus of “Runaway”). And what great moments these are—Sufjan’s eerie guest vocals on “Afraid of Everyone”; the guitar up-beats in the after-chorus of “Bloodbuzz Ohio”; the first string swells at the start of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. And the emotive melodies and creative, painstaking arrangements that make for these moments are written all over the album.

It’s a tremendously sad album—a J.D. Salinger sadness, out of place in our fast-paced culture—but for me that just makes it more compelling. Berninger’s grandiose depressiveness doesn’t shy away from overblown emotion:
“all the very best of us string ourselves up for love”
“sorrow’s the girl inside my cake”
“the storm will suck the pretty girls into the sky”
But it’s grounded in other places:
“You said it was not inside my heart. It was. You said it should tear a kid apart. It does.”
I’m wary of saying much else. I listened to “High Violet” and almost nothing else through a summer’s worth of stolen moments at camp (it fit perfectly with the book of broken-down Ray Carver stories I was reading), and I’ve barely examined my own experience of liking it so much. I will say, though, that the first time I heard “High Violet” I was in a constant state of surprise: not just that the album was so good, but that I actually liked every song better than the one that preceded it (again, except “Runaway”). That all of these songs opened up and got even better as I listened to them more throughout the year just sealed the deal; I had decided by the end of May that “High Violet” would be the best record of 2010, and I was right.
Accessibility: 3.5/5
Pair with: Kentucky Bourbon, neat.

Or maybe I was wrong? What were your favorite albums this year?

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