December 31st, 2010 at 12:31 pm
Choosing the best albums of the year is an imperfect science, and it’s not easy.
I realize my music-listening deficiencies, most notably, that I don’t listen to much rap or country. And I further realize that there aren’t a lot of surprises here, and that you can find a lot of these albums on other Best-of-the-Year lists.
These are what I listened to, and these are what I liked. That’s good enough for me.
In descending order, with No. 1 being my favorite:
10) “This is Happening” by LCD Soundsystem
We’ve been told this is the last album from LCD Soundsystem, and that’s a shame. If LCD Soundsystem brainchild James Murphy knows anything, it’s how to make a groove-thick dance party of a record.
That happens again on “This is Happening,” the third offering from LCD Soundsystem. It’s all delivered in Murphy’s half-talking, half-rapping banter, but that only adds to the sheer joy of songs such as “Drunk Girls,” “Dance Yrself Clean” and “I Can Change.”
9) “Transference” by Spoon
Britt Daniel and company have produced another catchy, power pop record, as fans of the Austin, Texas band Spoon have come to expect over the group’s 15-plus year career. Accurately capturing both the pain of a broken relationship (as captured in the snarling boogie “Written in Reverse”) and the power of love (“I Saw the Light”), Spoon proves they are little if not consistent.
8) “Expo 86” by Wolf Parade
From the driving pulse and heavy riffery of “Pobody’s Nerfect” to the quick-tempoed, punk-fueled burst of “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain” to a touching bit of balladry on “Yulia,” a song about an astronaut lost in space, Wolf Parade has created an eclectic album in “Expo 86.” Don’t take that as a complaint, though. The band alternates songwriters, and that’s evident, but it fails to get in the way. This album is a ride, but a fun one.
7) “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire
Perhaps there will never be a better record about urban sprawl ever recorded. That’s faint praise, considering the subject matter, but this is the territory Arcade Fire choose to invade on the August album “The Suburbs.” It’s a slight departure for the Canadian indie rockers, and not only because it contains their most radio-ready single — “Ready to Start.” It doesn’t mesh perfectly with their two previous outputs, “Funeral” and “Neon Bible,” but songs such as “We Used to Wait” and “Month of May” contain enough harmony and fire-and-brimstone style bombast that the band can be permitted to explore whatever territory they choose.
6) “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” by Johnny Cash
“I see a band of angels, and they’re coming after me,” Johnny Cash sings in the title track of “Ain’t No Grave,” the sixth and (allegedly) final of the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series. As Cash recorded these songs, the angels were chasing him, as he was in his final days of life. He confronts death and the afterlife straight on, offering songs such as “Ain’t No Grave” and a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day.” With the rich back story, and with the lifetime pass earned by Cash, it might be tempting to stop the analysis there. But there is a delicacy here, a sparseness, that warrants more than one listen. The emotional cries here are real, and Cash’s swan song would hold up if it were his first recording, too.
5) “I Learned the Hard Way” by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
The first song on the album “I Learned the Hard Way,” the new release by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, “The Game Gets Old,” starts with a beat, a horn blast and then the siren-like call of Jones. That’s just the first few seconds, and there are 39 more minutes of powerpacked, emotive soul. On most of the tracks, Jones is a woman scorned, but there are no wimpers here. She’s equal parts contemplative (“If You Call”) and resolved to get over it (“Better Things”). Jones has a fantastic voice, and she may have managed to outdo her own fantastic 2007 album “100 Days, 100 Nights.”
4) “Gorilla Manor” by Local Natives
Despite their terrible name, the Local Natives were responsible for one of the tastiest party pop albums of the year. It’s not all sunshine and roses, though, and buried beneath the tribal drumming rhythms, harmony vocals and bright hooks are sullen tales of abandonment, like “Airplanes,” perhaps my favorite song on any album released this year.
3) “Brothers” by The Black Keys
The Black Keys, perhaps because of the song’s connection to its producer, Danger Mouse, pushed the song “Tighten Up” — a song that reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock Chart — as the single for their May release “Brothers.” It’s interesting, considering it may be my least favorite songs on “Brothers,” an album the Ohio duo recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala. That’s a fitting location for the recording, considering that town’s soul and blues connections. The Keys have created a living homage to that sound, one that sounds fresh and important, especially during the killer come-on “Howlin’ for You.” The Keys may have taken a step back with “Attack & Release,” their 2008 offering, but they’ve rebounded nicely here.
2) “High Violet” by The National
At a concert in Kansas City earlier this year, Matt Berninger, vocalist for The National, joked that his band is considered to be “dad rock,” the indie world’s example of refined, somber songwriting. In some ways, they earn that billing with “High Violet,” the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band’s fifth full-length. Songs on the album discuss fatherhood (“Afraid of Everyone”) and financial insecurity (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”), all told in Berninger’s hard-to-find-comparisons-to droning baritone. That might sound boring, but the album is full of lush, carefully orchestrated songs that are as gorgeous as they are melancholy.
1) “Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons
This was, for all practical purposes, my favorite album of 2010 the first time I heard it. The debut album from Britain’s Mumford & Sons is alternately somber and uplifting, raucous and mellow, haunting and moving. The album’s big single is “Little Lion Man,” but the album also shines with tracks such as “Winter Winds,” “The Cave” and “White Blank Page.” It’s an album about, among other things, a failed relationship, and lead singer Marcus Mumford spends time blaming both himself and his romantic partner. It’s not always happy, but it’s always emotional and honest. And that’s powerful.