10. The Roots – How I Got Over
In a year of gigantic hip-hop releases from the likes of newcomers Drake and Nicki Minaj and heavyweights Big Boi and Eminem, The Roots‘ ninth LP is easily the one that came in under the radar of many fans and industry insiders. Despite the lack of comparative buzz, the album easily out-punches its competitors. Full of technical skill thanks to ?uestlove and the band, the rhymes of Black Thought and guest MCs like Dice Raw get a high-energy, live feel that adds a bright sheen to the dreary rhymes about everything from religious experiences to life in the street and on the grind. With heavy, heavy influences of soul (especially with the addition of John Legend), blues, and even funk, the album hits the standard benchmarks of black music while experimenting with indie elements, thanks to cameos by Jim James and Joanna Newsom. No other hip-hop release had as much sonic diversity, production value, innovation, lyrical depth, or catchiness as How I Got Over. Plus, it wasnt even the bands only release of the year. Apparently, hard work is the answer for getting over. -Chris Coplan
09. Jónsi – Go
What’s gotten into Jónsi over the past few years? As frontman for critically lauded Icelandic art-rock giants Sigur Rós, he’s layered his angelic falsetto into some of the most majestic, transportive tunes of the decade. But for all the weeping audiences and descriptions like “god weeping tears of gold in heaven,” Jónsi and company have never exactly been known for their good humor. That is, until 2008’s MeÃ° suÃ° Ã eyrum viÃ° spilum endalaust, their most accessible, upbeat release to date, with a handful of legitimate pop songs (and even one minor toe-dip into English lyrics).
Go marks Jónsi’s first adventure into solo material, and it’s an actual adventure. The last Sigur Rós record was just a preview of the sonic carpe diem explosion that weaves its wondrous way throughout these nine tracks. Working with arranger extraordinaire Nico Muhly, boyfriend/multi-instrumentalist Alex Somers, and Swedish percussionist Samuli Kosminen (aka unexpected God of Drums), Jónsi creates a musical landscape of truly unlimited possibilities. In the sort-of title track “Go Do”, he sounds positively enthralled in the sounds and feelings, his childlike plea surging over a flurry of woodwinds and tidal wave percussion: “We should always know that we can do anything!” On his excellent debut, he pretty much does. -Ryan Reed
08. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
According to Steve Ellison, or Flying Lotus, cosmogramma is the relationship between the universe and the hereafter– heaven and hell. It’s a cosmic drama. It’s something he learned from his great aunt, Alice Coltrane, and his relationship with the space-jazz queen comes across on Cosmogramma, which, as he says, sounds like a cosmic drama. It’s a mostly-instrumental album with a pointed soundscape, but with a lot of different sounds– glitches, clicks, drums, weird voice samples, scat, horns, and beats, to name a few. Cosmogramma sounds like an adventure, a love story, a drama– an epic. Sure, it could be called “trippy,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s an album that creates its own universe without needing to bother telling a story.
The supporting cast of the album only adds to the drama: the jazz tinges of Ravi Coltrane’s horns, Thundercat’s bass, Laura Darlington’s smokey vocals, and Thom Yorke’s album-stealing guest shot on “ And The World Laughs With You”. But the star here is obviously Ellison, whose work hearkens back to those “Space Is the Place” jazz days of the ’70s (there are songs on here called “Arkestry”, “Satelllliiiiiteee”, and “Galaxy in Janaki”) while maintaining its own post-Dilla vibe. This isn’t an album to be used as incidental music at a gallery or in the kitchen– this is an album to really get lost in. -Evan Minsker
07. Beach House – Teen Dream
Look at how far Beach House has come between over the past two years. Devotion was bleak, lonely and mysteriously beautiful, hazily drifting from song to song. Melancholic? No question. Beautiful? Definitely. But it lacked purpose. On their third record, Teen Dream, lead singer Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally found the resolve that was lacking throughout Devotion on both a lyrical and musical level. This time around, Beach House finally peaked outside the constraining doors of their bedroom dream-pop, awakening from the demons haunting them throughout their earlier work. In doing this, Teen Dream makes a subtle, yet pivotal progression.
Legrands serene voice has always remained the focal point of Beach House. Thats still the case on Teen Dream, but the pieces have come together around her to round everything out. Scallys layered guitars no longer exist as background accompaniments, instead providing prominent staples of their wearily drifting warmth. The slide guitar acts as an equal counterpart to Legrands heartrending croon on Silver Soul, while Scally also places his musical fingerprints all over Norway. More importantly, acoustic percussion has largely replaced the lo-fi drum machines of Beach House’s past, a change evident from the first moments of the album opener Zebra, a track laced with shimmering, crashing cymbals and timely syncopation. All the pieces come together gloriously on 10 Mile Stereo, as Beach House awakens from its customary dreaminess, ascending into an astounding climax that stands as their finest work to date. For a band previously known for their minimal, lo-fi dream pop, Teen Dream represents one gigantic step forward. -Max Blau
06. The National – High Violet
Perfection is a dangerous word to use when it comes to something as subjective as music. When you say an album or song is perfect, youre just asking for a fight. Well, you know what? Bring it on. To me, High Violet is a perfect album from beginning to end. The National have been building towards this moment for a long time, ever since they broke through with Alligator. While both that record and Boxer are incredible, their latest effort distills the bands formula into its most essential state. The 11 tracks within use every trick the group has shown us before, plus some new ones thrown in for good measure. For one thing, it gains so much power in its restraint. Theres nothing as aggressive as Abel or as straight-forward as the chorus of Fake Empire. Instead, all the emotion is barely kept hidden behind the curtain, until those moments when the band does cut loose, when it floors you.
Most people have probably heard the big songs like Terrible Love and Bloodbuzz Ohio, but the deeper cuts are what hold the album together. Listen to the grinding guitar in Little Faith. Hear how Matt Berninger gradually loses control as he coughs out the ending of Afraid of Everyone. The piano from England takes you down the Thames on a gentle, rainy day. As for Conversation 16, hell, just take in everything that the track has to offer. Youll be hard-pressed to find many other albums that are as strong from front to back as High Violet. Its beautifully fragile, lyrically haunting, and musically ambitious throughout every second. Theres only one word that comes to mind for an album like this. Perfect. -Joe Marvilli
05. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
An important thing: this album isnt about The American Civil War. I mean, no more than Julius Caesar is about The Liberators civil war in 42 B.C. Rome. Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in anticipation of the growing Protestant/Catholic tensions arising from Queen Elizabeth’s frequent capping of Protestants. Titus Andronicus and their poet laureate Patrick Stickles arent interested in telling you the tale of the famous ship the album gets its title after. There are more important matters at hand, both micro and macro. There are binary relationships and post-modern nihilist philosophy, Bret Easton Ellis and Bruce Springsteen, whiskey and cigarettes, punk and rock & roll, and the pursuit of the American dream in a place so absurd as America.
What The Monitor is is a kind of punk manifesto. At its most extroverted, there are rallies around the flag, cries of unity against them, and two warnings as to the ubiquity of the enemy. Conversely, the album revels in public solitude, as Stickles continually airs his personal grievances. But even at its most introverted, the album reaches out to the listener by ripping pages out of musics greatest books. A chapter from The Boss, a little Pogues, and some Minor Threat all build the pretense that The Monitor is just one shout chorus after another, but underneath its a meticulous and existential look at our/his bleak and irrational world, perfectly couched in punk anthems. Stickles leads by example, putting his heart, mind, and country into the abyss of self-analysis. And while it aint always a pretty site, its what our forefathers fought for, and its what we should continue to fight for in 2010 and beyond. –Jeremy Larson
04. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
It took five years for the Gorillaz to return to our stereos, the charts, and concert venues with a new album, but it was obviously worth the wait, as Plastic Beach went on to be one of the finest pop/rock records of the year. Damon Albarns songs were some of the sharpest his animated side project has ever been accounted for, showing that his craftsmanship is only improving with time. And Jamie Hewlett provided a new Gorillaz aesthetic to their videos, their album art, and their live show display. But it was the tunes on Plastic Beach that made this disc so memorable.
Snoop Dogg joined the brigade for the first time, a match made in heaven, for the track Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach. The Gorillaz stocked their band up with a little celebrity status by adding members of the Clash on the title track, and on their tour. Lou Reed even made a vocal appearance on the acclaimed track Some Kind of Nature. Albarn composed a few gems with his memorable vocal style, including the ever-catchy Rhinestone Eyes, and the serene On Melancholy Hill. The Gorillaz kept the dance and hip-hop elements at an all-time high with bizarre numbers with De La Soul (Superfast Jellyfish), Michael Jackson-esque grooves and high pitched vocals (Empire Ants) and, of course, a super poppy, rap gem that everyone could bump in their stereos. This obviously refers to the Mos Def and Bobby Womack featured song, Stylo.
All we are is dust, the cartoon band sang on one of this years finest records. We all may be dust, but this record is solid musical gold. Cheers. -Ted Maider
03. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Every so often, an album comes along that speaks from the collective consciousness of a generation. The Suburbs was made specifically for this moment in time, for the twenty-somethings of 2010. The world as we know it is changing. The Suburbs isnt just a portrait of restless former suburbanites and the listless teenagers they used to be, but of the world that this generation was the last to know, and whats already been left behind. The digital age has come. Everything is instantaneous, no one is truly lost anymore, and its easy to feel lost in memories for a pre-Internet existence that seems like a lifetime ago.
The Suburbs marks the efforts of Arcade Fires previous albums combined the darkness and rich musical layering of Neon Bible, and Funerals dream-like hopefulness in spite of the world. It doesnt place suburban sprawl and teen angst on a pedestal, nor does it condemn them. As a concept album, it embraces the full scope of angles and emotions, keeping the songs from choking on their own sentimentality. What makes The Suburbs stand out amidst other teenage snap-shots is that its not just a simple photo, its a panorama. And it belongs to us. -Cap Blackard
02. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
At this point, all there is to be said about Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been said, and then some. We’ve seen praise and hate, album reviews that all but declare him as the second coming of Christ, and college essays explaining how he is actually the real-life incarnation of the devil. Some, like our Mike Denslow, declare West’s fifth LP “hands-down the most ambitious mainstream rap album ever made.” Others say you can’t review it without taking into context West’s well-publicized meltdowns and, for that, can we truly bestow him with such praise?
At the end of the day, however, I think the most insightful thing I read regarding My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came during a late night troll on a message board dedicated to the rapper, as I awaited one of those G.O.O.D. Friday tracks to drop. Someone wrote that the album is great because it’s a culmination of West’s previous four studio albums, taking each of their strengths — the soul of College Dropout, the pop of Late Registration, the electronics of Graduation, and the art of 808s & Heartbreak — and making a greatest hits album of sorts, only the content is entirely new. While The College Dropout may forever be known as West’s best album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the one which will likely best reflect his self and his ideals when it’s all said and done. It’s innovative, it’s risk-taking, it’s charming, it’s frustrating (people still complain about the mix), and, most of all, it’s plentiful, which I think might be the word that best describes Kanye West. Just as Kanye never stops, this album never stops. Even on the 15th or 25th listen, there’s something new to discover between the time Nicki Minaj’s fake British accent introduces us to “Dark Fantasy” and Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word “Who Will Survive in America” leaves us as confused as Kanye is.
No, Kanye is not the greatest ever and, yes, he still needs to work on his manners, but if My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proves anything, it’s that one can be innovative while still being accessible. “Runaway” and “All of the Lights” are two of West’s most ambitious feats to date, but they’re also two of the album’s biggest hits. “Power” is as exposing as it is appropriate for Monday Night Football, and “Blame Game” is smart beyond its years, while still leaving us with room to laugh. Regardless of your perception of him, if you think he’s only an average lyricist or that the album is overhyped, there’s no denying how beautifully put together this album is, how much work went into it, and how at the end of the day it will likely influence generations to come. The only question now is what he’ll do next. -Alex Young
01. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Leave it to Vampire Weekend to release the year’s best album. Wait! What? Believe us, we were surprised, too. When we first sat down to hammer out this list, most of us came to the table with arguments supporting the latest from Kanye West or Arcade Fire or even the Gorillaz. But, then we started to think. You see, once you start playing the Devil’s advocate, it’s hard to return to your original argument. It’s sort of like that episode of Seinfeld, where Costanza buys a cashmere sweater for Elaine, and it looks beautiful and quite a bargain…until someone points out the glaring, red dot to him. Throughout the episode, naturally, the running gag is that every time Costanza attempts to pass the sweater off as a gift, someone notices the dot. And once it’s seen, the whole thing’s fucked. ANYWAY, after four hours of debating, none of us felt comfortable with our choices. That is, until someone muttered two words:
People respect redemption tales. They cherish epics. But, above all, they love success stories. Now, it’d be ridiculous to assume that Vampire Weekend is indie rock’s Rocky Balboa, or Coach Gordon Bombay (depending on your preference of fictional sports characters with remarkable comebacks), but turn the clock back a year and you’ll find the band in a very unfavorable position. They weren’t underdogs per se – after all, they were roping in thousands of fans per festival gig – but they were sailing on some rough wake of hype. What would happen with their sophomore record? Just about every indie blog from here to Australia pegged ’em for disappointment. In certain respects, everyone waiting for the sophomore slump preceded the actual music that would end up on Contra.
But all that went away. Instead of a jarring, forgettable, or even taxing listen, Contra added up to be, well, one of the better sophomore albums in recent memory (The Strokes’ Room on Fire comes to mind). What started with their self-titled debut sure enough continued here. The sunny Afro-pop still intact, frontman Ezra Koenig vacationed within his perspicacious lyrics, digressing on subjects that, at the time, felt typical of his background. Only now, some 12 months later, they come off just downright smart…fitting even.
Music is all about escape. It should take you places. With Contra, Koenig plays the part of a “friend with access” more than the chic aristocrat that so many make him out to be (myself included). He makes sure there’s room in the backseat, so you can hear about “how the other private schools had no Hapa Club” or realize “there’s nowhere else to go.” Some might argue most of his stories are irrelevant, one-sided, or even pretentious. But, at face value, this band makes no secret about either its identity or its influences. You don’t walk in expecting to relate to these guys, you walk in surprised at how much you do relate to them. Also, who doesn’t love a pop song with references to Futura font?
By far the most appealing aspect to Vampire Weekend, and something that’s evolved greatly since the band’s debut, is how cognizant and well versed they are in terms of instrumentation. This isn’t the sound of your typical “indie band.” It’s the result of a real band, who has fully realized its potential and continues to expand. Anyone still tossing out the Paul Simon comparisons aren’t truly listening. This goes far beyond Graceland. A song like the genre-spanning “Diplomat’s Son” sounds nothing like the driving indie rock of “Giving Up the Gun”, yet they blend seamlessly into one another. And, as if to throw the finger at those that felt they only had “A-Punk”, they did one better and issued even stronger singles with “Cousins” and “Holiday”, two songs that perfectly capture how witty and musically sincere this band can be.
In their review of Contra, NME called Vampire Weekend “one of the most unique bands on the planet.” We don’t necessarily agree with them all the time, but they’re absolutely on the money there. In a year that’s seen the market flooded with buzz band after buzz band, it’s important to acknowledge the New York scholars. They removed themselves from the muck (an agreeable and enjoyable muck at times, sure, but, nevertheless, still a muck). Instead, they braved the storm, nullified all odds, surged ahead, and issued not only a stellar sophomore album, but this year’s most solid release. If we’re to assume there’s a holy brethren of releases this year, then for us, we can’t think of any other leader than Contra. -Michael Roffman