My top albums of 2010

albums of 2010

I listen to albums, start-to-finish. If you’re interested in this list, you might do the same on a regular basis.

We’re not normal.

In his article, “Straddling the Cultural Chasm: The Great Divide between Music Criticism and Popular Consumption,” published this October in the journal, Popular Music and Society, Tom McCourt gives a fantastic overview of the increasing isolation of the traditional critical establishment from the very listeners they purport to inform and influence. Among the many issues he raises, he emphasizes the shift to a song-based listener culture where the single reigns and shuffling dominates—a shift that many critics have yet to make. McCourt writes, “Critics and consumers who might once have tended to respond differently to the same product are no longer even listening to the same product.”

In some ways, though, there is a split happening among listeners too. You see it most prominently in the rise of vinyl, an aggressive commitment to a technology that explicitly eliminates “shuffling” behaviour. The album’s decline as a commercial form is, arguably, increasing its relevance as an art form, a playground for those bands and their fans alike who cherish long-form experiences and less-than-instant gratification. If you’re like me, then even the greatest song can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest album, and I doubt I’ll ever outgrow my affection for records as a whole.

So I guess if you’re like me, then this is our list.

Album 25 - Spoon - Transference

One of the best columns going right now is Steven Hyden’s AV Club 1990s retrospective “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?” In his most recent entry, he made an unexpected comparison between Spoon and Soundgarden: bands that made such consistently good albums that their career as a whole can seem kind of boring while you’re experiencing it album-to-album. Maybe that’s why Transference kind of got forgotten this year. While not the band’s best, its playful structures—songs that start and stop without warning—gave a welcome loose feel to the band’s trademark tightness.

Album 24 - Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot

A strong contender for music’s greatest tragedy this year? That label disputes kept Andre 3000 from guesting on Big Boi’s first proper solo debut. What might beat it, you ask? That there’s really no room on the pop charts for a wonderfully messed up old-school-meets-WTF hip hop album. If nothing else, Sir Lucious Left Foot should put to rest the old “Boi as straight man, Andre as weirdo” false dichotomy that defined Outkast, even through Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Big Boi is every bit as adventurous—and at least he got an album done and in our hands.

Album 23 - Wolf Parade - Expo 86

I’m not interested in Wolf Parade if its two genius songwriters—Spencer Krug and Dan Boecker—aren’t interested in bashing against each other; I have more than enough opportunities to hear them make noise on their own respective turfs. I want to hear the tension, the pull and push of Boecker’s punk riffs against Krug’s prog smorgasbord.  Expo 86 may be the last Wolf Parade record we get in some time, but it’s a pretty great one, with songs like “Cave-o-sapian” and “Ghost Pressure” staying sharp but sticky, mad but manic, and always tense.

Album 22 - Sleigh Bells - Treats

Perhaps the only record this year that sounded better on bad speakers, Treats is almost tailor-made for the iPod-as-soundsystem age. Sleigh Bells have no interest in subtly or nuance. They make cheerleader sports anthems with jock rockin’ beats, all pushed to the auditory breaking point. No wonder that it took me a while to come around to the album; there’s a fine line between music and noise, and Treats dances gleefully all over it.

Album 21 - Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

Though Broken Social Scence didn’t really “go” anywhere in the five years since their self-titled third album—they toured, they did shows, Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning put out “BSS Presents…” solo albums—it sounds like the band was in pretty dysfunctional place, judging by the interviews they’ve given. So maybe it’s a relief that Forgiveness Rock Record got made at all, let alone that it’s a pretty impressive distillation of the band’s ramshackle, rollicking live incarnation. It’s not classic, and perhaps not challenging, but there’s something wonderful in its comforts.

Album 20 - Against me - White Crosses

You know why I like later Replacements records more than early Replacements records? Because they learned how to write songs. The professionalism that Against Me! gained on New Wave wasn’t the sound of selling out; it was the sound of something better.  White Crosses is a step above even that for me because it wears its age proudly on its sleeve. The band that once sang “Baby I’m an Anarchist” now belts “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” poking respectful holes in the circles they once travelled but always with a respect for the past. It’s growing up with grace and grit.

Album 19 - Vampire Weekend - Contra

Though I loved Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, I probably would have given them even odds on making something up to that same standard, especially when so many “first album wonders” struggle with the follow-up. And yet, Contra kind of betters it. It’s an impressive balancing act, keeping the bands strengths intact while stretching their sound off in a whole slew of directions: punkier (“Cousins”), dancier (“Giving Up the Gun”) and more soulful (“I Think Ur A Contra”).

Album 18 - The Walkmen - Lisbon

Some bands sound like their place of origin, inseparable from their surroundings. In contrast, The Walkmen sound placeless. Though they’re from New York, they sound more western, wandering, nomadic. That sonic playfulness has made for a surprising variety in their records, even though their core elements—jangly guitars, Hamilton Leithauser’s raspy belt—stay the same. Lisbon is their most lived-in record to-date, warm and inviting, which may make it their best.

Album 17 - Olenka and the Autumn Lovers - And Now We Sing

Writing about music professionally—even if only occasionally, as in my case—makes you realize just how much SOUND is out there, and how little of it we actually come in contact with. I’m reasonably confident that …And Now We Sing would have never even gotten on my radar were it not for the assignment to interview the band’s namesake, Olenka Krakus. Hours before the interview, I hid in the corner of a coffee shop—incredibly hungover, no less—desperately seeking something warm and soulful. An hour later, the album’s European-influenced folk, brilliant and broken, seemed indispensable.

Album 16 - LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

James Murphy has hinted that This is Happening might be LCD Soundsystem’s swan song, at least in its current incarnation. If so, it’s a pretty compelling exit note, offering something of a summary of his work under the moniker to-date. Even though I preferred the pop direction that Sound of Silver‘s highlights took, there’s something great about hearing tracks like “Pow Pow,” which are a complete throwback to Murphy’s initial singles. This is Happening is an eclectic, exciting compendium of what alternative-focused dance music can offer.
Album 15 - Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

There were a lot of comparisons made between Surfer Blood and Weezer when Astro Blood hit the streets back in January, so perhaps it’s worth considering why it’s on this list instead of, say, Hurley. After all, Surfer Blood are clearly playing in Weezer’s alt-pop turf, with tight riffs that recall Rivers Cuomo and company at their finest. But Weezer have spent the past decade ripping surprise out of their playbook, choosing instead for a depressingly workman-like commitment to empty hooks.

In contrast, there are twists around every turn on Astro Coast: the bouncy jangle of “Take it Easy,” the grooves of “Harmonix” or the overly-fuzzed patience of “Slow Jabroni.” Most important, the second half of the album is a slow-burn revelation, keeping the hooks tight but making them less immediate. If anything, it recalls Pavement as much as Weezer, suggesting that Surfer Blood’s greatest victory may be in bridging the gap between mainstream and indie 1990s alternative rock.

Album 14 - The New Pornographers - Together

I wasn’t super keen on Challengers when it first came out, and it might remain my least favourite New Pornographers album, but it’s an important one in the band’s catalogue. With Twin Cinema seemingly pushing the band’s power pop formula to its pitch-perfect climax, they had to try something different, and Challengers felt like Carl Newman and the band laying a lot of directions on the table to see where to go next.

Enter Together to reconcile those competing directions, connecting the band’s increasing taste for skillful subtlety with the wall of sound that we first fell for a decade ago. The secret is in the liberal use of a string section, which sutures the entire package at the seams. Suddenly, everything that sounded divided on Challengers felt harmonious again; the album is loud, sweet, powerful, soulful and quirky, all at the same time and all making sense. In that way, Together is perhaps 2010’s most aptly titled album.

Album 13 - The Besnard Lakes - The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night

When I was in my late teens, I fell pretty hard for Montreal’s godspeed you! black emperor, in part because they were my first real exposure to soundscapes: the idea that well-placed noise could be every bit as musical as rhythm and melody. It also crippled my belief—once steadfast—that the sign of a great piece of music was that you could strip it to an acoustic guitar and it would still sound great. That’s just stupid. Sound matters.

The power of sound is even more pronounced when it comes from a band that knows the power of melody. Montreal’s Besnard Lakes may be better than anyone else in Canada at fusing beauty and brawn, harmony and dissonance. Like the Beach Boys filtered through My Bloody Valentine, the band’s songs stay earthy while they add piles and piles of ethereal, reverberated sound to the mix. Throw in a bit of angry force and you end up with something colossal.

Album 12 - Woodpigeon - Die Stadt Muzikanten

Despite the demassification of music journalism online, there’s a great deal of consensus on year-end lists such as these (for a variety of reasons). Mine is no exception, with the vast majority of my selections making regular appearances on other notable lists, though not necessary with the same priority. For the most part, I’m comfortable with this—denying great music for the sake of contrarianism would just feel forced—but it does produce a weird gut double-check when you give high placement to an album that you don’t see anyone else talking about.

But few albums from the early months of 2010 stand out as strongly to me as Woodpigeon’s third album, which provided the sprawling, harmonic collection of folk music that Sufjan Stevens eschewed this year. With his breakable voice unable to carry the weight of his ambition by itself, Calgary’s Mark Hamilton uses instrumentation to provide scope, with arrangements that stay novel and surprising without getting unnecessarily fussy. It’s not a challenging album, but its comfort in its own beauty leaves the listener feeling sad, warm and welcome.

Album 11 - The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

I struggle sometimes with whether I love Gaslight Anthem more than I love their music. That’s not meant as a slag—I am kind of head-over-heels for their shamelessly-intertextual rock and roll revue—but more as a suggestion that what we want from a band can sometimes colour what they actually give us (more on this later). American Slang spent a great deal of time on my turntable this year, but is that a sign of its objective value? Is any of this objective?

I think it can be. And I think American Slang is pretty great, in large part because it demonstrates that Gaslight Anthem aren’t quite the one-trick stallion I once worried they might be. Their Springsteen-meets-Replacements formula gets thrown for a loop as the band dives deeper into the great American songbook, pulling out echoes of Van Morrison, John Fogerty and countless others. Best of all, Brian Fallon pushes his voice to the limits, digging down to belt out the album’s ten knockouts with a soulfulness far beyond his years.

Album 10 - PS I Love You - Meet Me at the Muster Station

Few voices this year surprised and intrigued me as much as Paul Saulnier’s. With an uncontrolled focus, he sings like the lovechild of Mick Jagger and Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug, equal parts sexy and manic. You can hear a wavering discomfort and lack of confidence in each word, and yet they’re belted, full-throated, as if to compensate for the nasally uncertainty underneath.

That his voice is paired with an engaging garage rock record only served to seal the deal. With a sound ripped out of the 1990s (see Jr., Dinosaur) Meet Me at the Muster Station finds the Kingston, Ontario two-piece attacking distorted riffs with abandon, filling the speakers with rumble even when they turn the volume down a notch. Though Saulnier is clearly the focus, take heed of Benjamin Nelson’s drumming: he sets the blistering pace that Saulnier’s voice breaks itself to keep up with.

Album 9 - Diamond Rings - Special Affections

Though I have a great affection for the Magnetic Fields, they’re not the easiest band to dance to, aside from the occasionally waltz-y ballad. So their turf was rife for a newcomer to come in, take Stephen Merritt’s early forays into synth-based melody and make a no-bones-about-it electro party out of them. Even better, how about a newcomer equally as adept at sexual ambiguity?

John O’s Diamond Rings project first made a splash with the stunning “All Yr Songs,” which would easily be this decade’s greatest love song had it not first been first released last year. That nothing else on Special Affections reaches that plateau is neither surprising nor disappointing; if anything, it’s exciting, as John O is interested in working within a much broader pop spectrum. Much of the album has a dark edge, feels a bit twisted, but every bit as playful as his white-hip-hop-meets-glam-rock image.

Album 8 - Superchunk - Majesty Shredding

We tend to value effort in pop and rock criticism—the demonstration that someone is pushing themselves to the breaking point to try and achieve something bigger than themselves. For example, this is why Sgt. Pepper’s and Revolver areconsidered The Beatles’ greatest albums, and why the rock-solid-but-familiar A Hard Day’s Night is generally located much lower on “best of all time” lists. Still, though, shouldn’t there be a place for records that aren’t necessarily challenging but areconfident in what they do? That may not reinvent the wheel but which are pretty friggin’ good at getting places?

Majesty Shredding was the most effortless-sounding album of the year, masking that Superchunk’s first record in almost a decade probably took a fair bit of work. That instant confidence and familiarity threatens to make the collection seem unassuming…except that it whoops so much ass. It kicks quick and kicks hard, somehow avoiding the two pitfalls of the comeback album: being too nostalgic or trying too hard to be cool. And that’s why its confidence is its greatest asset.

Album 7 - Owen Pallett - Heartland

It’s somewhat fitting that Heartland aligned with the point where Square-Enix finally realized that there was this violinist songwriter in Canada becoming kind of a big deal who just happened to be named after one of their biggest video game franchises. I always felt the Final Fantasy moniker was a bit silly, myself, so I wasn’t sad to see it gone. More importantly, though, it meant that Pallett’s own name would be attached to his most sprawling, personal and undoubtedly best work.

That sense of ownership flows through Heartland. Pallett’s live performances have been knocking me out for years now, but Heartland is the first album that captures their weight on the record. It ebbs and flows, pop sensibilities intact, while broadening the palette to include keyboard patterns and enough string accompaniment that the tinny sound of previous albums is long gone, replaced by the force of true orchestral might. The coda of “The Great Elsewhere” is one of the few musical moments of the year to actually leave me speechless; I had to pause my iPod in the coffee shop just to catch my breath.

Album 6 - Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

Arguably 2010’s most difficult first listen, The Age of Adz was such a huge aesthetic break from Stevens’ trademark orchestral folk that it seemed almost impenetrable in the first 80 minutes spent with it. By the time that you got to “Impossible Soul” and the album’s biggest WTF moment—ummm…autotune?—I wouldn’t necessarily blame listeners for half-thinking Stevens might have gone the way of Royal Robertson, the mentally-unstable schizophrenic artist whose work inspired the design and many of the album’s lyrics.

But here’s the rub: once you strip away the drum machines and synthesizers, and come around to the shockingly-direct lyrics, The Age of Adz really isn’t that big a shift for Stevens. The song structures, the melodies…they’re not all that far distant from Illinois or Michigan. And once you find the familiar beneath the surface, the album’s frustrations fade away and it becomes one of the year’s most refreshing works, with Stevens redefining himself and his style while still creating something deeply human with his new walls of sound.

Album 5 - Caribou - Swim

When I interviewed Dan Snaith for Halifax’s The Coast, we talked for a bit about his goal of making dance music that sounded liquid, rather than solid. As someone whose rock tastes are built on solids—sharp rhythms, tight riffs—the whole idea seemed counter-intuitive to building the sort of dance album I enjoy. But it’s a testament to Swim’s quality that Snaith (the man behind the Caribou monkier) manages to pull off such a loose, free-flowing album without losing his measure in the process.

Credit, perhaps, Snaith’s creative process, which saw him spending his weeks recording at home and his weekends test-driving material in UK clubs. As a result, the album feels populist and insular at the same time, high energy yet intimate and personal. It ramps you up and brings you down, and manages to pull of a set of dark, introspective lyrics alongside even its most compelling, intense beats. Equally as compelling blasting through headphones as it was live and in person, Swim grooved like nothing else in 2010.

Album 4 - Beach House - Teen Dream

Teen Dream sounds like a swoon. An effervescent feeling of bliss, an all-encompassing sense of warmth and wonder, covers every note of Beach House’s third full-length album. There’s a reason their work has earned the description “dream pop.” They fill the speakers with gorgeous reverb and the oscillating voice of Victoria Legrand, who can flip between breathless and breathtaking on a coin’s turn.

It’s an album that I’m half surprised ended up this high on my list, if only because there’s a sameness to it.This isn’t a record with a lot of ebb and flow; its quieter moments aren’t all that quiet, its loud moments not all that loud. Yet Teen Dream kept returning to my stereo throughout the year, always there when I just needed to shut out the world and just lose myself in something sweet, haunting and beautiful.

Album 3 - The National - High Violet

Album 2 - Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Album 1 - Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

In May, Pitchfork’s Tom Ewing wrote about the idea of the “imperial phase,” a term he borrows from the Pet Shop Boys. It describes moments in an artist’s career where “intense scrutiny meets intense opportunity,” when it seems like everyone is paying attention and desperate for something great. The artist, through the quality of their work, manages to seize that moment, delivering something that demonstrates command of their form, capitalizes on the audience’s goodwill and self-actualizes, setting the tone for the era of their career to follow.

Ewing is using the phrase to describe major pop musical forces—like Lady Gaga, for example—and he has reservations about applying it to album-led styles such as indie rock. But what he describes happens regularly on a variety of scales, from the top of the charts to the bottom of the local rock scene. Of all music’s joys, few are more compelling than watching an artist or a band seize a moment in time that’s been presented to them, and to do so with great work that elevates not only their own career but the music culture around them. Though three very different releases, what unites my three favourite albums of 2010 is that sense of an imperial moment, of opportunity presented and opportunity seized—with expectations exceeded.

In the case of The National, the scope is smaller than the other two, but the the self-definition is staggering. High Violet is the sound of a band taking command of the moody undertones of their sound and making them the centre of the experience. Though always tense, many of the band’s most famous songs—“Mr. November,” “Apartment Story”—succeed in their moments of release. High Violet, in contrast,stays tense, tightly-wound, nervous.

And yet it’s compellingly precise in its atmosphere, a perfect match for the masculine anxieties that vocalist Matt Berringer so fantastically explores. It’s not nearly the crowd-pleaser of Boxer or Alligator, but its maturity struck a deeper, more resonant chord with me. It’s an album that solidifies The National as one of America’s greatest bands, and few experiences this year filled me with as much joy as watching them play its songs to bigger and bigger audiences, each time winning converts to their cause.

The opportunity presented to Arcade Fire, though, was on a whole other level: the chance to become the great art rock band of their generation, not unlike Radiohead before them. Lest you think I’m overstating things: what other rock band of such acclaim is selling out sports arenas right now? Who else has the industry appeal to wrangle a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (on a legitimate independent label, no less)? In this fragmented media landscape, they’re the closest thing we have to a unifier in indie music, a common ground that we can all sing along to.

But I’d love The Suburbs even if it didn’t elevate the band’s career in this fashion, though I’m not surprised that it did. Painting with a broader palette, its exploration of adult regret and suburban life is far more compelling than its detractors give it credit for, and it’s buoyed by a captivating set of songs that dive deeper into the band’s post-punk influences. It’s an album that feels lived-in, a world populated with characters that feel the stitches and scars of their past. And it’s a complete album in the truest sense, with slow builds and quick releases in equal balance. It’s not Funeral, but making another Funeral would be the worst thing Arcade Fire could do right now. Instead, The Suburbs is the sound of a band building its legacy, one mountain at a time.

And then, we have Mr. West.

In selecting My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I’m resisting the urge to go against the grain. After all, it’s not like Kanye needs another “album of the year” writeup to solidify his cultural dominance in 2010; hell, there hasn’t been this much of a journalist consensus around a record since Kid A ten years ago. Radiohead’s opus was a fairly uncomplicated choice; this one, though, comes with a lot more issues. Are myself, and others lining up to champion Fantasy, rewarding an album for its ambition rather than its success at achieving it? Is affection for Kanye The Persona preventing an accurate assessment of Kanye The Artist? (Pitchfork’s embarrassing “album of the year” writeup—a slight paragraph basically arguing Fantasy speaks for itself—only provides more ammo on this point).

I’ve been wresting with these issues for a month now, and I’m not sure I’ve come to a satisfactory conclusion on them. And yet, they haven’t been enough to dislodge My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy from this spot, one which I began to suspect it might claim after leak after leak, G.O.O.D. Friday release after G.O.O.D. Friday release, suggested that West was truly building something special.

More than any other album this year, Fantasy is the sound of a man in control of a moment, one he himself created through his successes (one of the greatest runs in hip hop this past decade, even excluding his guest spots and production credits) and his failures (Swiftgate, Matt Lauer, you name it). West would have the music world’s attention even without the scandals, or releasing free music every Friday, or the greatest Twitter account of all time. None of them were necessary, but they all played off one another to the point where West was inescapable in 2010 even without a chart-topping single

And yet, none of this would have mattered one iota had My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy not delivered. (You didn’t exactly see 808s and Heartbreak showing up on my 2008 albums list, did you?) As audacious as it as accomplished, Fantasy sounds like a record made without any compromises or accommodations: not to genre barriers, not to budget concerns, not to radio hits. Its cavalcade of guest stars speaks to West’s compelling balance between ego and selflessness. He gives so many great moments to so many great MCs—not to mention appearances from artists as varied as Bon Iver and Rihanna—and yet in the process, it’s as if he’s trying to position himself as the new centre of hip hop.

And damned if Fantasy doesn’t sound like he succeeds. The albumfeels like hip hop’s past, present and future, bringing together sonic linkages that stretch from classic rock (“Power”) to indie folk (“Lost in the World”) to electronica (“Blame Game”). It’s crowd pleasing yet challenging. It’s as comfortable working with the straight-up pop of “Runaway” and “All of the Lights” as it is simply providing a framework for MCs like Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Pusha-T to spit greatness. Does its reach exceed its grasp at points? Perhaps. But who else with the commercial platform that West has is reaching THIS far, succeeding this captivatingly?

“I love commercial art!!!” West Tweeted earlier this year. “I know that sounds like an oxy moron and if I spelled that wrong I just sound like a moron lol!!! …but seriously have you guys taken time to think about that concept???!! COMMERCIAL ART!!! It just came to me! That’s what I make!”

He’s not wrong. And in 2010, no one else made it better.

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