Qualifiers and descriptors of that ilk are kind of pointless by now. Just know that I don’t think that my list reflects the state of music or has ulterior motives. These albums tended to be the ones that made me happiest throughout 2010 and will likely be the ones that will make me happy in the future. On with the words!
Favorite Albums of 2010
The Black Keys – Brothers
There was no album I heard in 2010 that emanated more emotion and more obvious body than Brothers. The Black Keys created a murky, bluesy album that lacks obvious studio trickery, but displays a band fully realizing who they are. The album is full of hooks and guitar riffs that are lodged in my brain tank for weeks. From the perfect use of a whistle and tempo-change gymnastics in lead single “Tighten Up,” to the full-on instrumental and lyrical attack of “Next Girl” and “Sinister Kid,” Brothers is an album in which I find myself lost more than any other album released this year.
Circa Survive – Blue Sky Noise
Since the 2007 release of their sophomore effort, On Letting Go, Circa Survive has grown by leaps and bounds in popularity. With a live show that ranks among my favorites and a lead singer that creates distinct “hate him or love him” lines among followers and detractors, the band had become somewhat divisive. When I first heard Blue Sky Noise, I found myself somewhat let down. I had grown quite fond of the atmospherics of On Letting Go and expected the band to release (due to my lack of better judgment) On Letting Go II. Instead what I received was a fantastic rock record with Circa Survive flavoring. Blue Sky Noise is the band at its tightest and most focused point in their lives. BSN saw the songwriting lose atmospherics in the sense that there is less guitar noodling and drum fills and more allowing the songs to create atmosphere on their own and use every piece of the band to create something vivid. Lead single “Get Out” brings more overt intensity than anything Anthony Green has done since he days in Saosin, but shows the new direction of the band to perfection. One of my favorite moments of 2010 in music is Circa Survive’s sound exploration in “Fever Dreams.” BSN is the most straightforward lyrical and musical work of Circa’s career, but it is also their creative and musical high point.
Jonsi – Go
Jonsi is the angelic voice of Sigur Ros that has been breaking hearts for over a decade now. His voice has always been an instrument of epic proportions that moves the music in the way that he sings more than in the what he sings, largely because he sings in Icelandic and his own language of Hopelandic. One of the many drastic shifts we experience in Go, Jonsi’s first solo album, is that the majority of the record is sung in English. We learn that Jonsi is not the most profound lyricist of our generation, but someone who experiences life, love, loss and the gamut of human emotion, just like the rest of us. Another change is that the music here is palpably “fun.” Whereas Sigur Ros tends to move in the realm of the serious and the dramatic, Jonsi goes in an eclectic, bouncy direction, producing music that brings images of frolicking through a forest or spending a day with friends at an amusement park to my mind, with it all being beautifully scored by Jonsi. His voice is also full of warmth, a departure from the otherworldly vibe of his full band project. His vocal range is still marvelous and awe-inspiring, but it skews to a more personal dynamic than it has in the past. Go is the most fun I’ve had with a record this year, hands down. I cannot offer a recommendation beyond simply encouraging anyone to listen to this record and see how your mind’s eye interprets the album.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Was there an album released this year with more questions surrounding its release or with more to prove that Mr. West’s opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? The disdain for 808’s and Heartbreaks was seemingly universal and the disdain for Kanye West was quite literally universal following the infamous “Taylor Swift” debacle on MTV. I remember constantly checking my Twitter timeline in the days following his outburst and seeing the backlash of “fans” who suddenly were moral and character judges for every artist in their respective worlds. I remember the internet memes and the “Imma Let U Finish” application for the iPhone. I remember being in the minority that I could give fuck about what Kanye West did because I have been a sheep blindly following the shepherd of Kanye West. Regardless of that, I still found myself skeptical entering his new record cycle, after he changed the album’s name and had been missing from life for months. Suddenly he joins Twitter, starts G.O.O.D. Fridays, effectively becomes the most talked-about musician of this musically-strong year and releases an album that poses to be one of the most effective pieces of music of his life. Fantasy sees Kanye West at his most bombastic and eccentric (“Power,” “Hell of a Life”) but also at his most introspective and conscious (“All of the Lights,” Gorgeous”). The album is a landmark because of its breadth and scope. Never have we seen a hip-hop/rap album so far removed from genre definition. It is as much of a rock album because of the guitar and the ego as it is a pop album because of its commercial appeal and listenability. 2010 should be changed to the year of the Kanye in the Chinese calendar, because we have all be affected by his talent this year.
Lissie – Catching a Tiger
There likely was not a record that was as much of a departure from my prior expectations as Lissie’s Catching a Tiger this year. Her debut EP, Why You Runnin’, was an exercise in folk excellence. But, considering her impeccable and riveting covers of Lady GaGa’s “Bad Romance” and Kid CuDi’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” I should have expected an expanded musical palette. The album starts off buzzing with the trifecta of “Record Collector,” “When I’m Alone,” and “In Sleep.” These records are all mid-tempo, pulsing tunes that display Lissie’s vocal characteristics, while providing a sturdy backbone on which to build the remainder of the album. She will go on to show more energy with the fast-paced songs, such as the immediately catchy “Cuckoo,” and she’ll be more stripped down in songs like “Little Lovin’,” but she never moves beyond her boundaries as a musician and always seems comfortable and confident in any approach to her songs. The more I listen to the album, the more fully-formed it seems, which is typically the opposite with many new artists and their debuts. I look forward to what Lissie has in store and hope that she can gain the following in the States that she has in Europe and overseas, which is massive. With talent like hers, she deserves it.
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
I am not musically inclined. I know nothing of chord progressions, the difference between major and minor chords, can barely tell the difference between the sound of a keyboard and a piano and I cannot keep rhythm when I clap or tap my foot along with a song. Basically, if you asked me what instrument I would play if I could, I would have to think long and hard, because I would not feel comfortable with any answer. These bits of information are what make me so enthralled with Local Natives’ debut, Gorilla Manor. Each and every time I have listened to this album, I have found myself desperately wishing I could play the drums, or any type of percussive instrument. As soon as I feel the first drum kick of “Wide Eyes,” I find myself enamored with the percussion and overall musicality of the band. It feels very much like the album could be performed on a street corner with any number of items that can be found on the ground as it could be executed in a studio or on a stage with every possible instrument at their disposal. There is something innately pure about this album. The vocal harmonies are gorgeous, but they never drown out the bass line or the magnificent drumming (or whatever other percussion instruments are used). The album’s lyrics are full of questions of life and death and personal notes and tinges that I find myself ruminating upon often. Gorilla Manor is the type of album that makes the question, “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” an easy one to answer.
The Morning Of – The Way I Fell In
There is a moment in “The Time It Takes to Grow” when, as a listener, I find myself convinced that The Morning Of have spent exactly the amount of time they needed to grow as a band. Their debut, The World as We Know It, was not a bad album, but I found it to be relatively elementary in it’s execution, lyrically and musically, which took away from its replay value. There are a couple of songs I still return to on occasion, but the album is nearly impossible to play through at this point. The Way I Fell In has found the band comfortable in their own skin, in a more subdued place (especially vocally where both lead singers have lost any grating tone that their voices may have had) and a more mature place in their execution of their music. I don’t want to infer that this is a mid-tempo snooze fest, as the band can ramp up their sound, evidenced on lead single “The Ones That Fall Apart,” but it is one that loses the overdone musicality and “he/she loves me, he/she loves me not” topics of their debut. Relationships are still a big part of the lyrics on the album, but their scope and their personality are imbued with depth and color. To finish this album out, the band went with closer “Heaven Or Hell” which features the former lead singer of Copeland (R.I.P.), Aaron Marsh. The song tells the story of the band and the tribulation they have been through to get to the point at which they released this album. Hearing this song, I could not help but find myself pulling even harder for this group to succeed. Shortly after the release of the album, I watched a video of the two lead singers talking about the inspiration for each song and a little about the process for writing each song. When they talked about the story behind how “Heaven Or Hell” came together, I felt my eyes well up with tears, because I could tell how excited the band was about how it came together. Knowing the care that The Morning Of puts into their music makes it hard not to pull for them. This may have not been my absolute favorite album this year, but it is one that tells a lot of stories that I find entirely affecting.
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
The thing that I found most impressive about this album is that it sparked an emotional response from me throughout my first listen and has continued to find ways to excite me with each new listening experience. (My response is in stark contrast to the assessment given by Pitchfork, which found the album formulaic and hollow.) The group harmonies are somewhat similar to those of Fleet Foxes, but the difference is in the music. Instead of going for the “kitchen sink” instrumental approach of many bands in the indie rock arena, Mumford & Sons keep their foundation throughout the album, banjo, upright bass, keyboard, guitar and steel drum. From here, they branch out from time to time, but never in a way that highlights itself. The furious banjo-strumming is the most notable instrument on the album (heard on “Sigh No More,” the album-opener up until the end album’s final song of “After the Storm”), but it always works within each song’s structure. I could say much more about this album, but that could make for its own list entirely. If there is one album I would recommend to nearly anyone, without regard to their taste in music, this would be it. Sigh No More was likely my most-played album this year and will undoubtedly continue to find rotation in my car/turntable/on my iPod.
The Narrative – Self-Titled
The Narrative is a group of terrifically talented musicians who took the do-it-yourself approach to releasing their debut EP in 2008 and followed the same structure with their debut full-length album in 2010. The Narrative splits lead vocal duties between a male and female singer, similar to The Morning Of. What separates The Narrative, is that instead of splitting time on each individual song, the band instead chooses to showcase one singer per song, with accenting or background vocals from the other singer. The album starts off solidly with “Fade” and “Cherry Red,” but we see that this is a band that is very certain of who they are when “Silence and Sirens” begins to play. “Silence…” is a song that moves and sways over a piano line without ever allowing itself to fall into a cliche of a pop song. The album stays perfectly swell over the next few songs, but closes as well as any album I’ve heard in recent memory. Beginning with “Starving for Attention” through finale “Turncoat” The Narrative flex everything they have, allowing us to wonder how it is that this band remains unsigned. Catchy guitar riffs, mind-grabbing melodies, perfectly placed electronic touches and excellent lyrical work pepper the latter half of the album, moving from a perfectly acceptable and pleasing indie-pop release, to a piece of work that warrants multiple listens to further immerse oneself in the stories of the songs. The Narrative is a band that continues to work hard, day in and day out, and push themselves further toward the front of the talented group of young bands in the indie/alternative genre.
The Rest of What I Loved This Year:
Aziz Ansari – Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening
Antony & the Johnsons – Swanlights
Brooke Fraser – Flags
Childish Gambino – Culdesac
Freeway & Jake One – The Stimulus Package
Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
How to Dress Well – Love Remains
Junip – Fields
Lakes – The Agreement
The Mercury Program – Chez Viking
Minus the Bear – OMNI
The National – High Violet
Ra Ra Riot – The Orchard
The Republic of Wolves – Varuna
S. Carey – All We Grow
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz