Tip Top Albums of 2010

by juli boggs

Everyone seems to agree that 2010 was a pretty good year for music, but what remains to be seen is how will 2010 be remembered in 2020. While there was, like every year, a superabundance of fine releases, most of these will have faded to the “rarely played” playlists of our music libraries by this time next year. When retrospective radio programming of the future is stuck on Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ Kim, and Lil’ Bieber, will anyone but the most aging hipsters recall anything by Sufjan Stevens? How many people were just introduced to Sun City Girls by the final album of their three-decade spanning career released only this past October?* And so, with this declaration of what was most memorable for me over the last 12 months let the grand cultural filtration begin.

*Self-incriminating sentence

15. Twin Shadow

Forget

[4AD/ Terrible]

While the majority of songs on Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr.’s debut are primarily reworked sounds of 1980s new wave ballads, select tracks stood out to define this album as an interesting project in reinterpreting the past without succumbing to it. Produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, tracks such as “Castles In The Snow” blend a fusion of post-punk industrial with Bowie-esque slow jams that prove to contribute more than they borrow from the synth rock era.

Guilty Ghosts Guilty Ghosts

14.  Guilty Ghosts

Guilty Ghosts

[Independent]

While I find myself defending this pick against decries of “Mogwai rip-off” and “Prog is dead,” I can’t help but champion Brookyln’s Guilty Ghosts (aka Tristan O’Donnell ) as a beautiful standout of 2010 no matter what its delineation. Guilty Ghosts’ self titled debut is a little blown out and a little bit droning, but each track resonates with a clear and bright emotion that keeps its spirit from drowning in its own cavernous echoes and repetition. If you head over to his bandcamp site, be sure to check out “Everyone Around Me” for a free-flowing experience, especially if you were a fan of this year’s Emeralds release that I’m seeing on so many other top pick lists.

13. Sufjan Stevens

Age of ADZ

[Asthmatic Kitty]

I knew Sufjan had this in him since I stumbled upon his searing 2001 electro release “Enjoy Your Rabbit”.  After abandoning his 50 States project and considering giving up music entirely Stevens has realized the ultimate culture jamming composition, embracing auto-tune and auto-harp in equal parts. His first release in five years, Age of ADZ was largely influenced by the apocalyptic art of the paranoid schizophrenic self-identified as “Libra Patriarch Prophet Lord Archbishop Apostle Visionary Mystic Psychic Saint Royal Robertson.” While my affinity for art brut, or outsider art, particularly endeared me to ADZ , it would be difficult to dismiss this release as anything less than a giant leap for that segment of well-orchestrated musicians who so needed to escape their own eloquent stagnation.

12.  Caribou

Swim

[Merge]

Behind many experimental musicians is an equally notable education, whether they labor their days away as a biomedical engineer as does Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis, or whatever it is you do with a PhD in mathematics such as Caribou’s Daniel Snaith.  What a Drowned In Sound review called “sonically luxurious,” Caribou’s latest release is a rich exploration of Tibetan-tinged percussion, cut and paste shakers and swollen harmonies that swim between your speakers as eponymously predicted.

11. Janelle Monáe

The ArchAndroid

[Bad Boy/ Wondaland Arts Society]

Embarking on a solo project in 2007 inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, 2010 saw Monáe’s second and third suites released together as The ArchAndroid, a pop rich experiment in what may be the coolest-penned genre ever, “afrofuturism.” Featuring Big Boi, of Montreal, and Saul Williams, The ArchAndroid recalls an alternate universe where Ziggy Stardust, Prince, and Parliament Funkadelics jam as one, lifting it above the usual mire as an innovative conceptual album for contemporary hip hop.

10. White Horse

Final Coordinates

[Independent]

LA’s White Horse is the bedroom industrial project of Ben Chisholm. Featuring muted vocals and dark wave dance jams, Final Coordinates is like an archive of all the sounds you loved from Trent Reznor paired with a more refined version of the Manson Family Jams. See the tracks “Modern Heroes of Victimhood” and “Shadow Music” on his bandcamp page for aural elaboration.

09. James Blake

CMYK EP/ Limit To Your Love 7’’

[R&S / Hessle]

People like 22-year-old Londoner James Blake make me feel like a waste of space. So it is that his cover of Feists’s “Limit To Your Love” delivers torture and delight with its vibrating bass and sparse melody that seek to underscore the effortless strength of Blake’s voice, layered and manipulated in the way he does it best. His second EP release CMYK is less straightforward, produced from warped R&B samples mangled almost beyond recognition, but a Pitchfork review worth reading thought this through enough for anyone.

08. Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

[Def Jam/ Roc-A-Fella]

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy besides being the best album title to make my list this year, is more akin to De La Soul’s 1993 release Buhloone Mindstate than it is to any other Billboard charting album to come out in the last five years which have all, to be safe, sounded more or less exactly the same.

Where Sufjan Stevens finally embraced auto-tune, Kanye West took this year to put out a more ambitious and elaborate album than ever, essentially creating an Age of ADZ parallel that has MTV fans and bedroom rockers making out for the first time in a long time. It would seem that pop music is turning itself inside out. And when a genre begins to question itself, that’s where music gets good.

07.  Dirty Projectors + Bjork

Mount Wittenberg Orca

[Independent]

Right away, this collaboration recalls The Microphone’s Singing From Mt. Eerie. Maybe it’s a mountain thing. Regardless, what could easily have created an irritating and overly ambitious mess was instead realized as a modest and controlled collaboration of intensely unique vocal styling. With tracks ranging from staccato scales layered behind Longstreth’s medieval approach to melody, to sparser, more drawn out harmonies lead by Iceland’s very own, Mount Wittenberg is a truly talented collaboration for, I don’t know, world peace.

06. Tobacco

Maniac Meat

[Anticon]

Black Moth Super Rainbow frontman Tom Fec made a mess of sound when he completed his side project Tobacco’s second album. Where lo-fi discovers itself in fuzzed out hi-fi, Maniac Meat creates an engrossing wall of psychadelic sound that you could only expect from a follow up to a release called Fucked Up Friends. Synth heavy, vocoded, and featuring the guest raps of Beck, “Fresh Hex” stands out as a highlight, prompting listeners to embrace the jangled confusion of what is either a brilliant display of futuristic psych prog or a sinking ship of sprawling noise.

05. Zola Jesus

Stridulum EP

[Sacred Bones]

Does every Zola Jesus album sound the same to me? Yes. Luckily I really enjoy that sound of what seems to be a fifteen-year-old girl attempting to deal with her exceptionally deep voice without sounding too much like Siouxsie and the Banshees. While Zola Jesus’s Nika Roza Danilova isn’t 15, and I don’t know what “Zola Jesus” is even supposed to mean, I can say that Stridulum sets the scene for a dissonant, cavernous, brooding sort of day, which exactly the way I like the spend my winters.

04. El Guincho

Pop Negro

[Young Turks]

In stark contrast to the darker vibes of Zola Jesus, El Guincho is more akin to a portable, tropical party that switches your day on. Turn it up and settle in for indulgently warm steel-drum beats and syrupy smooth vocals that seem to attract brightly coloured birds. Pop Negro isn’t only sexy, it’s engaging, blissful, and transporting.

03. Appetite

Scattered Smothered Covered

[Independent]

Hailing from Sacramento, Appetite is the project of Teddy Briggs, previously releasing material as Chief Briggum. Scattered Smothered Covered (with no reference to the Hootie and The Blowfish album of the same name intended) is marked by a melodic complexity, a tangle of chimes and percussion, and loping guitar lines so often seen employed by fellow area musician Pregnant. Far from being a hollow derivative however, Scattered stands strong on beautifully crafted lyrics, clear and engaging melodies, and an underlying sense of humor that have made it the most addictive and satisfying album this half of September. Check out their bandcamp page for all the clever roving rolling pleasures of “Tussy” and more.

02. Sun City Girls

Funeral Mariachi

[Abduction]

Created from material completed shortly before the death of their drummer Charles Gocher in 2007, Funeral Mariachi is the final release of Sun City Girls’ 27-year career. Trade marked with the world music tourismo buffet of material familiar to the Sun City Girls back-catalogue, tracks such as “Black Orchid” create the perfect soundtrack to a sorrowfully surreal daydream while “This Is My Name” stands out as the only fully understandable track on the album, biding goodbye to their friend and the world as they knew it, “When I was dead I looked exactly like you/ Now I’m alive where nothing is true.”

01. LCD Soundsystem

This Is Happening

[Virgin/ Parlophone/ DFA]

Neither so stark as to be stoic or so over-produced as to come off glitzy, This Is Happening is a proclamation of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy hitting his stride. Rumored to be the group’s final release and preempted by videos of the album’s creation in a Hollywood mansion, any and all anticipation was rewarded by over an hour of Bowie and Talking Heads inspired mania that bursts forward without a moment of hesitation. Confident and endlessly engaging, This Is Happening is overflowing with stubbornness and honesty with none of the filler, lending it more than enough gravitas to escape the black-hole of just another party band.

*Header image by Jim Ward Morris. Check out his blog for more by him.