As much as year-end lists are basically a conglomeration of everything said about an album over a twelve-month period, it would be criminal not to repeat once more the artistic merits of Joanna Newsom. Newsom went from a quirky (bordering on annoying) harpist intent on increasing her listeners’ patience to a well-developed songwriter and accomplished vocalist who learned how to trim the fat from her songs to create a much better product, and from an elfish girl who posed in animal skins to a sexy woman in hot pants and high heels. She has always had ambition, but never has she been as focused as she is on Have One on Me, which overflows with realized potential and the kind of songs we always knew she could write. Perhaps what is most surprising about the album is the fact that, after her grating warble on Ys, the songs on this album go down easy. Yes, like falling asleep. – Channing F.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Halcyon Digest was just how warm everything sounds. Whereas Bradford Cox and company’s earlier work was an unwieldy mess of noise thrown loosely under the shoegaze label, Halcyon Digest continues what 2008’s Microcastle began: transforming Deerhunter into a full-fledged rock band, feet firmly planted in pop territory and beckoning us to just relax and enjoy. It’s not just direct: there’s a depth to these songs that makes Halcyon Digest something more than just a really good rock album. Songs like the self-destructing ‘Desire Lines’ and the gorgeous dream of ‘Helicopter’ sound like the new classic rock, all substance and style without a tipping of the scales one way or the other. Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s most deft accomplishment yet, and they’ve done it not with bells or whistles or 20-minute-plus compositions but by writing perfect rock ‘n roll, pure and simple. – Rudy K.
Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid is soo much more than just music. If you can excuse the wording inflection, there’s a good reason behind it: it really is. Who, after all, can remember the last time a pop album was executed on such a grand and fantastic scale? We’re talking an r&b concept album, revolving around a messianic robot-like figure, infused with a generous helping of funk, jazz, swing, hip hop, classical. You name it, it’s probably there. And not just it, but them too: Big Boi, Of Montreal, Saul Williams – a guest list as expansive and breathtaking as the ambition itself. Oh and then there’s Monae. Say it slow now: best voice of 2010. But all that aside – because it wasn’t enough already? – what pushes The ArchAndroid over the edge is its enduring freshness. Listening to Monae tread a tightrope of disparate musical influences while pouring her heart into an endeavor she has command of from top to bottom is nothing short of spellbinding. Pop music hasn’t seen anything like this since… ever. – Alex S.
Only a few years ago, the much-hyped Speakerboxxx/The Love Below had people wondering whether Outkast were better as a duo or as a unit. Now it seems like the only debate is about who’s the better of the pair. Sure, that’s a mark of how long it’s been since they released a proper album together (it’s an entire decade if you don’t include film scores and compilations), but it’s also a telling reflection of just how brilliant Sir Lucious Left Foot is. There’s no need to argue about whether either member can release an album as good as Aquemini or Stankonia any more: Big Boi’s already done it. For an album of such length, and for an album that broadly stays within mainstream-friendly boundaries, the consistency of Sir Lucious Left Foot is astonishing. Big Boi doesn’t try to do anything unusual or move the artform forward; he’s using the same old tricks as everybody else, but doing it so well that it becomes a sharp reminder of why those tricks were so thrilling in the first place. In a way, the album validates Speakerboxxx and casts a shadow over The Love Below: Big Boi’s had much greater artistic success with sticking to what he’s good at than his partner has with experimenting. Your move, Andre…. – Nick B.
To say that the talent of Steven Ellison has grown in leaps and bounds since his 2006 debut, 1983, would be the understatement of the year. While 1983 and Los Angeles were genre-defining, movement-sparking records, Cosmogramma feels like the album Flying Lotus was always destined to make. Subtly weaving a stronger free-jazz influence into his already packed collage of electronic-based music, Ellison has created a record that stretches his sonic and emotional palette considerably. The busy, messy beats are smeared with brilliant instrumental performances from, among others, Thom Yorke (vocals), Ravi Coltrane (tenor sax), Rebekah Raff (harp) and Thundercat (bass), and topped with spacey, intricate synthesiser parts that can only be described as epic. It’s not rare for an electronic-based record to be this overtly passionate; but for it to also be so perfectly consistent, experimental, and expansive means that it cannot be considered anything short of a classic. – Andrew H.
The National’s albums have each been portraits of growing up and the way that we interact with the world in the process. Alligator portayed the new found freedom of being a teenager and seeing the world as open and accessible for the first time. Boxer showed that same world as a series of carnival fun house mirrors, warped and shrouded in uncertainty and confusion. Now, with High Violet, they’ve documented the paranoia and claustrophobia of life in twenty-first century America. Vocalist Matt Berninger acts as your tour guide through the emotional void of modern existence, documenting the disconnect between people and the society in which they live. But he never loses hope in humanity itself: just when the world is about to swallow him alive there is one force that has the power to pull himself back from the edge of darkness – love. – Adam T.
The Monitor is almost too ambitious. It’s always creaking and even cracking a little under the constant pressure and weight of its own lofty ambitions. Because The Monitor was not created to come off as merely another hyped album to you, the listener: it’s meant to be life-defining album, a signifier of what you’re about, of what we’re about; us, those who’ve listened to The Monitor. Those who’ve experienced it. Those who’ve lived it, these lyrics, the keggers and the humiliation and the hatefulness. Those who’ve sung (screamed) along with Patrick Stickles when he says that you, us, everyone, will always be losers. Those who’ve taken those last lyrics from ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’ to heart. It’s an album that all but forces me to deploy ridiculous amounts of hyperbole, as I’ve thus done, but just to aptly describe what The Monitor does to me (right?). The Monitor means for us to feel this way; thing is, against seemingly insurmountable odds, it succeeds. This is why Titus Andronicus will live on, forever. – Cam
It’s easy to exaggerate the absurdity of what Sufjan Stevens has done with The Age of Adz. Cast him as the iconoclast – what is structure, what is convention, what is a song – but the ultimate question everyone seemed to ask was: “Has he gone mad?” The evidence, at first glance, seemed to indicate quite overwhelmingly that he’d come unglued, that every inch of him was bursting out onto this empty canvas and painting it with the most surreal sketches of a man not quite losing his mind but more lost in it than we’d ever realize. But to cast him as such a symbol – as distant, untouchable, different, like the age old caricature of a reclusive artist – is unfaithful to the most remarkable thing he achieves.
What shines through the chants, synths and crescendos, is the enormous amount of himself that Sufjan has poured into The Age of Adz and that’s an investment that he has made of his own accord and by his own observation. And, at least to me, that is the sign of a man not lost but rather more in tune with himself than we ever gave him credit for. Most importantly, it is a stunningly personal contribution. And despite the storm and swell of everything around him, it all still rests on the shoulders of our omniscient narrator: the colossal clutter filtered into ideas and themes as human and emotional as anything he wrote while parading as the cherub-voiced folk romantic. For all that has been made of Sufjan Stevens the personality, for every step that has been taken to distance this album as some demented portrait, what must not get lost in translation is just how strikingly intimate The Age of Adz manages to be. – Kiran S.
A few months ago, I read a review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy where the author’s main argument was “the only thing that matters is the music.” Ever since, I have been burning to write on the album, because My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is so not a “just-the-music” record. Perhaps more so than any album released in recent memory and certainly more so than any record released in 2010, Dark Twisted Fantasy exemplifies the emerging trend in popular culture for an artist to totally transcend his art, as practically everything on this album is judged not necessarily on its own merits but rather through the omnipresent, awesome lens of Kanye West. And what makes this record vital is that Kanye West, “just a chi-town nigga with a nice flow,” can make himself look like the most interesting person ever.
It’s fitting that Kanye West takes a moment on his album to name-check Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop because with Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye has played us all and is now reigning supreme as the King of Fucking Everything. With MJ’s scepter come MJ-like problems, all of which are artfully and crudely put on display for us to dissect and care about even if we never really cared about the cultural phenomenon of Kanye West. The meme-making business has made Kanye so relevant that one has to wonder if the infamous Katrina telethon and the Taylor Swift fiasco weren’t really meltdowns but genius career moves, a theory that doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you consider that everyone and their mother heard the record that emerged from Kanye’s self-destruction. More importantly, everyone loved it because Dark Twisted Fantasy offers us the Kanye West we’ve always wanted: a Kanye who shows us that underneath all of the legendary braggadocio is a guy who’s just as vulnerable and fucked up as we had suspected. In the end, the only thing about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that matters is Kanye West, and we have to thank him for it. – Adam D.
2010 featured more landmark releases than any year in recent memory. All of the albums we listed screamed excellence, invading our eardrums in ways we never thought possible. The album that tops our list, The Wild Hunt, also screams excellence; but whereas Kanye’s excellence is reverberated through Nicki Minaj’s monsters, and Sufjan’s excellence is filtered through auto-tune, Kristian Matsson alone makes the sound on his album. On The Wild Hunt, you will hear only one musician, but remarkably, no song on the album feels stark. Maybe it’s his abrasive, charming voice capable of so many inflections, or maybe it’s his deft fingerpicking or his full, confident strumming. I argue, however, that Matsson’s truest strength is his universality, his ability to transcend himself and speak from a higher plane–indeed, his ability to be The Tallest Man on Earth.
It’s the reason that ‘Kids on the Run’ succeeds as an album closer. Musically, the piano chords drag along, as Matsson pulls himself through the song like he’s dragging a dead horse through a swamp. His voice is more warbly than usual. Hell, the piano isn’t even really in tune, as if he stumbled upon the instrument in some broken down church in Mississippi. In the hands of anyone else, ‘Kids on the Run’ fails, but The Tallest Man on Earth collects himself in the deepest trench to gasp, “Oh, let’s break some hearts.” And the collective heart of hundreds of thousands of listeners breaks, as if on cue.
In places more confident, Matsson is quite simply the greatest songwriter of our generation. ‘King of Spain,’ arguably the best song he’s ever written, flies through its deceptively simple chord progression like a virtuosic masterpiece as Matsson weaves a fantastical tale about desire. But perhaps it was all just to throw in the sly taunt to his critics slapping the “Dylanesque” tag on him, beginning the third verse with, “And I wear my boots of Spanish leather/Oh, while I’m tightening my crown.” (Dylan had a song called ‘Boots of Spanish Leather.’) Dylan is his grounding, the boots on his feet, but Matsson still has the longest legs and the longest spine. He walks on rivers like it’s easier than land, holds glaciers to open flames, and embodies both fire on the mountain and water in the fountain. And for all this, he’ll stay the tallest man in our eyes for 2010. – Tyler F.
Contributing Staff Members
Sobhi Abdul-Rakhman | Nick Butler | Cam | DaveyBoy | Jared D.
Adam Downer | Jeremy F. | Tyler Fisher | Ryan Flatley | Channing Freeman
Nick Greer | Andrew Hartwig | Jom | Rudy Klapper | Lewis P. | Kiran S.
Alex Silveri | Trey Spencer | Mike Stagno | Dave de Sylvia | Adam Thomas
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