Top 10 Albums of 2010

Here are my 2010 albums of the year, starting with number one:

1. The National — High Violet
To be honest, I’d never taken much notice of The National in the past. They have a dedicated fanbase, many of whom have expressed the opinion that “High Violet” is not the highpoint of the band’s career.
For me, however, they just never clicked.
That all changed when I heard “Bloodbuzz, Ohio.” That song’s dramatic grace coupled with an extraordinarily catchy refrain of “I owe money, to the money, to the money I owe” resonated with something deep inside me. The whole album is filled with those moments of profound lyricism and gnawing musical accomplishment.
I didn’t have much expectation when I saw them live in Portland, Ore., in September, but to my surprise they were extraordinary. Being enveloped by their music and watching lead singer Matt Berringer stumble around the stage screaming into the void added even more depth to the album.

2. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Talk about a beautiful dark twisted fantasy.
This album does not disappoint.
It is over-the-top, self-deprecating, self-promoting, self-destructive — add your “self”-description here. And on top of all those lyrical explorations, the songs are killer.
I’ve usually enjoyed Kanye West’s singles, but this is the first time I’ve fallen in love with one of his albums.
After all the hype I was reading about it, I figured I should investigate for myself. However, I expected to come away a bit mystified, which is my usual reaction to the rap/hip-hop genre — it just doesn’t typically speak to me.
West broke the mold, which is something he is quite good at for better and for worse.
I wish him luck on his personal quest for self-improvement, as long as he doesn’t stop producing riveting work like this.
“Runaways” and “Blame Game” continue to be among the most-played songs on my music player.

3. Crystal Castles — Crystal Castles
How do you describe a band as alien as this?
Often labeled as punk electronica, they alternate between sonic freakouts and some of the most melodic things I heard this year. “Empathy” and “Not in Love” rank as two of my favorite songs of the year — with a non-album Robert Smith-sung version of “Not in Love” possibly my favorite tune of 2010.
I’m not sure on what plane of existence the members of Crystal Castles dwell, but I definitely enjoy my visits.

4. iLIKETRAINS — He Who Saw the Deep
I was initially drawn to Britain’s iLIKETRAINS because of their brooding post-rock that was usually coupled with lyrics about historical figures or events. “A Rook House for Bobby” — as in Bobby Fischer — was an early favorite. However, on this album the band took a new approach and abandoned the historical themes. Instead, the focus is on an environmental apocalypse. Don’t worry, it’s not a heavy-handed Greenpeace manifesto. It’s quite artfully done, as on the epic “Sea of Regrets,” where singer Dave Martin observes, “And I will leave this world in pieces/I will leave it to the scarab and the crows/Under seas and under soil/In a million years/Our bones will be your oil.” You’d do well to hop on this train before it goes off the tracks.

5. Robyn — Body Talk
I’ve been saying this for several years now, but there is something strange going on in Sweden. I mean, how could that small Scandinavian country consistently produce some of the most innovative pop music to hit the airwaves in this new millenium? Robyn was everywhere this year. She released three albums (the third of which combines the highlights of the first two and adds a handful of new tracks), toured extensively and burrowed her way deep into my heart. Not only does she have an incredible ear for electro-pop, she manages to combine it with heartfelt, adult lyrics that don’t pander to the lowest common denominator as is so common in the genre. (Yeah, I’m talking about that other ubiquitous pop queen of 2010, Katy Perry.) “Dancing On My Own” and “Hang With Me” are just two of many highlights.

6. Spoon — Transference
Because of the mixture of very polished and almost demo-quality songs on Spoon’s latest album, I heard many people dismiss it as a letdown compared to 2007’s “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” That was the first Spoon album I really enjoyed from beginning to end. But “Transference” has been played far more on my stereo. I love the hi-fi and low-fi stacked next to one another. But most of all, I just love the tunes. Seeing Spoon perform many of the songs live this year didn’t hurt, either.

7. Surfer Blood — Astrocoast
This album is filled with so many great tunes that Surfer Blood makes it sound easy. On their incredible debut album, they give their own twist to the college rock formula of the 80s and 90s, and I’m really excited to see what they do next. A band who names a song after David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” is on the right track in my book. (Confession: I had the opportunity to ask lead singer John Paul Pitts about the song’s lyrics at 3 a.m. in a Subway located in downtown Portland. It was one of those totally unexpected “wowsers” moments that don’t come along often enough in life).

8. LCD Soundsystem — This is Happening
LCD Soundsystem was certainly happening in 2010. With what could be James Murphy’s last hurrah under the moniker that catapulted him from co-founder of DFA Records to certified indie dance music star, critics and fans were falling over themselves to lavish praise on the album. It is not undeserved. Murphy mixes his sardonic wit with catchy tunes — many of which carry on for more than five minutes and create an epic quality to the album. I still find my myself yelling out “Oh, eat it, Michael Musto/You’re no Bruce Vilanch” whenever I listen to “Pow Pow.” There are plenty of such exuberant moments on “This is Happening,” but there are also plenty of moments reflection, such as when Murphy sings “And all I want is your pity/Oh, all I want are your bitter tears … Take me home/Take me home” on “All I Want.”

9. Twin Shadow — Forget
Twin Shadow hit all my sweet spots. The music has a little 80s New Wave, a little funk and a little old-school emoting. The sum of those parts is an intimate, elegant and danceable album that easily swims through the brain for days on end.

10. Yeasayer — Odd Blood
“Odd Blood” is the closest thing to “world music” on my list, but it sounds nothing like what that term may conjure up in your head. There are plenty of “tribal” beats and Indian influences, but Yeasayer combine those sounds with a lot of keyboards, giving them a pop/rock sound entirely their own. Sometimes that works better than others — witness the pop grandeur of “Ambling Alp” versus the somewhat messy and potentially annoying (depending on your mood) “Mondegreen,” which has the lyrics “Everybody’s talking about me and my baby makin’ love ‘til the morning light” being sung over and over. Still, the band creates a unique sound for themselves that I find very charming. Plus, Yeasayer is another group I managed to see live this year, and I had a great time. That gives a band some bonus points for a few missteps.

Best EP of the year: Class Actress — Journal of Ardency
If you put 1980s Depeche Mode and Madonna in a bag and shook them up, this is what you might get. Make no mistake, it’s damn good.

I also have to make mention of one of my favorite live performances of the year. Staygold performing “Backseat” on a Swedish music awards show. It was love at first sight.

Honorable mentions for albums of the year:
Blonde Redhead — Penny Sparkle
ceo — White Magic
Girl Talk — All Day
Janelle Monae — The ArchAndroid
My Wet Calvin — All Great Events
Of Montreal — False Priests
Sharon Van Etten ˜ Epic
Sleigh Bells ˜ Treats
Best Coast ˜ Crazy for You
The Walkmen — Lisbon
Great Empty — Desire the Creator
The Besnard Lakes — The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night
The Drums — The Drums
Tim Kasher — The Game of Monogamy
Warpaint — The Fool
Xiu Xiu — Dear God I Hate Myself
Zola Jesus — Stridulum II
And the list could go on …

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