Top 40 Albums of 2010 (25-11)

25. Fresh & Onlys

“Play It Strange”

[In the Red; 2010]

Last year I purchased Fresh & Only’s self-titled album and thought they were just another garage band from San Francisco (don’t get me wrong; this is a good thing).  Boy was I wrong. With their 2010 release “Play It Strange”, Tim Cohen and his band of merry-makers have proven that with a little clean up and an emphasis on a 60s vibe, they are a band to be reckoned with.  The songs are still youthful in spirit but they’ve gained a maturity with the addition of production that clears the air surrounding their surfer guitars and Cohen’s mumbling baritone.  While other retro-outfits try to mimic a multitude of classic songs (Black Lips), Fresh & Onlys have made an album of songs that are completely original despite the fact that you swear you’ve heard them before on the local oldies station.

24. Male Bonding

“Nothing Hurts”

[SubPop; 2010]

It’s been a while since Sub-Pop has released an album filled with so many fast, fuzzy, frenetic songs (could it have been the early 90s?).  Whatever the case, the combination of Male Bonding and SubPop is a match made in heaven.  Male Bonding provide the label with that energetic noise that defined SubPop so long ago, and in return the label cleans the band’s grubby little punk songs up a bit.  Don’t worry – the production isn’t heavy handed, but just enough to allow the listener to enjoy the rowdy 2-minute romps without having to strain.   And “Nothing Hurts” isn’t all punk clamor all the time.  After bouncing your head around for 24 minutes like a bobblehead, the band provides a nice cool down with the final track “Worse To Come”.

23.  The Books

“The Way Out”

[Temporary Residence; 2010]

Usually with sampled music, there is a disconnect because humanity isn’t evident. We may take delight in the composition of the audio clips and the beats, but the enjoyment doesn’t go much beyond that.  This is not true with “The Way Out”.  On the album, The Books take samples of characters who either connect with the listener or expose their own weaknesses. Whether it be a little boy expressing his violent tendencies, a lonely man leaving a desperate phone message to a woman, or a creepy old man retelling the story of lil Hip-Hop.  Several tracks use the sounds of a man speaking about the self-help program auto-genics, and even though I think they are used for the purpose of humor, I’ve found myself on several listens actually slipping “deeper and deeper” into a meditative state.  And just when you think everything makes sense and that the music is really speaking to you, the band will throw in a joke like “The average human being only uses 5% of their brain. The other 95% is for…food.”  And in an instant, you feel like a fool for having such a deep connection to their tomfoolery.  There’s nothing quite like an album that mocks you, the listener.

22. The Roots

“How I Got Over”

[Def Jam; 2010]

A month ago I wrote of The Roots: “I worried that Jimmy Fallon had ruined The Roots like he’s done over the years to so many SNL skits and movies.  Then I heard their 2010 release ‘How I Got Over’ and it all made sense. By playing nightly within the confines of a show that no one watches, the band was able to continue honing their craft through a medium that also provided them with the chance to meet a variety of artists. These two elements are evident on ‘How I Got Over’, where track after track features another guest appearance to go alongside the bands compelling jams.  The difference with The Roots approach to the collective-style album is that there is never a question whose album this is: the band firmly has its fingerprints deeply pressed into every nook and cranny of ‘How I Got Over’.   When The Monsters of Folk softly sing an opening prayer on ‘Dear God 2.0’, ?uest Love’s pin-point drumming responds like a voice from beyond; when John Legend soulfully croons on ‘The Fire’, Kamal Gray’s constant pulse on the piano is the fuel that keeps the flame burning; when the sample of Joanna Newsom’s ‘The Book of Right On’ appears on ‘Right On’, Black Thought plays the perfect anti-thesis to her distinctive voice,  punctuating his point right on cue.”

21. Vampire Weekend

“Contra”

[XL; 2010]

Earlier this year I wrote of this album: “When I first heard the title for Vampire Weekend’s latest release, ‘Contra’, I prepared myself for disappointment.  An album named after the greatest video game ever? No chance of being good (okay, I’m pretty sure the Columbia graduates were referencing the counterrevolutionary guerrilla group, but stay with me here…). Fortunately, I was wrong.  Not only is ‘Contra’ excellent, but it shares the same attributes that made ‘Contra’ a classic NES video game. What made ‘Contra’ such an essential Nintendo hit was how it moved from the side-scrolling levels that take place in exotic locations to a 3-D first person approach, with Bill Rizer and Lance Bean battling aliens and robots while running up a confined, futuristic hallway, laser barriers and all. The balance between these two environments is what makes the game so memorable and replayable. Vampire Weekend’s “Contra” followed the Konami video game’s formula to a T.  The familiar tropical/classical/ska sound is still there, but amidst the bongos and African inspired melodies the band throws in a more futuristic approach. Every song features technological touches (sampling, drum machine, auto-tuner) but these modern sounds are added in sparingly, providing a refreshing new twist to the jumpy Vampire Weekend sound we grew to love a few years ago. Basically, it’s bringing a soundscape from out of this world to the jungle – the premise to ‘Contra’!”

20. Julian Lynch

“Mare”

[Olde English Spelling Bee; 2010]

In a glowing review from earlier this year I wrote: “Déjà vu is such a strange phenomenon. Is it just a series of circumstances that remind us of a past experience? Or is it a result of daily routines where it’s inevitable that events are bound to repeat themselves?  Or could it truly be that memories are timeless, that they float aimlessly through our mind, seeping in from the past, present, and future, creating a psychic horizon where there is no end or beginning? Whatever the case, Julian Lynch’s ‘Mare’ is auditory déjà vu, bringing you back to memories that never existed.  Something about Julian’s ambient psych-jazz resembles music you’ve heard before (maybe as a child, maybe on the ‘Finding Forester soundtrack’, or maybe in a dream).   The songs on ‘Mare’ exist in some way within our psyche, a collection of vivid arrangements that whisk you from one memory to another, then vanish just as you find yourself nuzzling up to the warm feelings that arise. You would swear that ‘Mare’ is a used record store discovery from the 1970s. At the same time, I think you would be hard pressed to find an artist in the 70s accomplishing what Lynch does with this album, an atmosphere from another place, another time.  At the risk of sounding cliche – it’s otherworldly while still being grounded in everything you know (or knew in another life).”

19. The Walkmen

“Lisbon”

[Fat Possom; 2010]

I don’t get how they do it. Essentially, every Walkmen album is based off the same three elements: a reverberating guitar, lyrics of heartbreak, and Hamilton Leithhauser’s incredible vocals (probably my favorite voice out there today).  Yet with each album, they are able to create something distinctive from other releases, although I can’t quite place how they are different. If you were to shuffle all of their songs, it would be difficult to find any major disparity between the songs. But when the songs are separated by album and placed among their peers, they suddenly become something more. “Bows + Arrows” feels like  a night in New York City, “A Hundred Miles Off” resembles Dylan when he first went electric, “You and Me” hearkens back to the 1950s age of courting, and with “Lisbon” the music somehow transports you to a romanticized Portugal where the sun always shines, even when you’ve just been dumped down in the Chiado.

18. Surfer Blood

“Astrocoast”

[Kanine; 2010]

An excerpt from my Summer Albums list: “Don’t let the youth of Surfer Blood fool you; these kids understand the power held within their six-strings.  The guitars of Thomas Fekete and John Paul Pitts complement each other in the same way I imagine it may sound like if Doug Marsh and Dick Dale joined forces.  The band succeeds at blending the surfer guitar licks of old with distorted riffs reminiscent of Pavement.  Back in March, I’d been listening to ‘Astrocoast’ two weeks leading up to SXSW, but when I actually saw them perform, all thoughts of it simply being a happy rock album were erased.  Watching the guitar work of these Florida youths had me in awe.  At first glance, ‘Astrocoast’ is simply fun, but if you delve deeper there is a darker beast brooding beneath the surface; a creature that craves to devour your pop sensibilities and digest them whole.”

17. Sufjan Stevens

“Age of ADZ”

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2010]

From a review this fall: “The songs on ‘Age of ADZ’ remind me of a lot of the literature of Kurt Vonnegut, a strange declaration, I’m sure.  Vonnegut is often referenced as a ‘science fiction’ author, but this label doesn’t sit well with me.  Yes, Vonnegut often wrote of time travel, aliens, and life on other planets, but it’s not done in the same way a Phillip K. Dick or a Ray Bradbury would approach it.  He isn’t writing of these places and events to entertain nor is he trying to convey them with realism. Instead, he’s using them as a vehicle for conveying a larger message about humanity.  The songs on ‘ADZ’ are done in such an over-the-top space-age motif that it’s difficult to take them serious, which in the end is the point. On surface it’s an album of robot take-over and the arrival of Judgment Day, but any able-minded person knows that Sufjan is talking about the demons within his soul, battling it out, not of UFOs and killer volcanoes.”

16. Laura Veirs

“July Flame”

[Bella Union/Raven Marching Band; 2010]

Some would like you to believe that the best album by a female singer/songwriter in 2010 was by Joanna Newsom, but they’d be wrong.  That honor goes to Laura Veirs and her highly underrated “July Flame”. Veirs could easily depend on her more intimate tracks that showcase her and her guitar executing the songstress routine, but she understands that to keep the listener engaged you have to switch things up, and each song takes her unassuming voice from one northwest terrain to the next. “I Can See Your Tracks” resembles a jaunt through Fleet Foxes territories, “Little Deschutes” takes her depressingly down to the water’s edge, and “Summer is Champion” transports us down memory lane to the days when The Decemberists were still entertaining. And she does takes you through all of these fabulous faunas within one 13 track CD. Beat that Joanna.

15. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

“Before Today”

[4AD; 2010]

I can still vividly remember the first time I listened to “Before Today”.  I was alone in Iowa City, driving around aimlessly, trying to find the venue where Lightning Bolt was playing that night. Frustration is usually the emotion associated with the sensation of being lost, but instead Ariel Pink’s drugged out mix had me giggling to myself as I passed one strange street after the next. Was this guy for real? It wasn’t just simply a band trying to sound retro, it was a sound completely pulled from the 70s.  Plus, the lyrics were over-the-top and completely self-aware.    Yet, this isn’t a comedy album. In fact, “Before Today” features 12 of the most memorable pop songs you’ll hear in 2010 (or in 1978). Now, I can’t help but imagine Iowa Hawkeye football players Johnson Koulianos and Nate Robinson sharing a joint while listening to Ariel Pink’s “Before Today”.  Oh, the crazy drug-town that is Iowa City, Iowa.

14. Quest For Fire

“Lights From Paradise”

[Tee Pee; 2010]

Quest For Fire is not a stoner rock band, despite what you may have heard. I struggle to believe that pot-heads can even keep up with this epic shoe-gaze-psych-fuzz.  Stick to your simple Pink Floyd because “Lights From Paradise” may cause flashbacks. The opening track is called “The Greatest Hits By God” but the album might as well share this title because these songs will take you to a higher level of understanding of the world that surround us.  The grungy guitars would suggest that this is an angry rock album, but Chad Ross’s calming voice shrouds you with positive energy, all held within the distant distortion. “Lights From Paradise” is tranquil and heavy, all at the same time. If anything, this music makes you feel stoned without any drug intake required (plus, there are no munchies).

13. Kanye West

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare”

[Def Jam, Rock-A-Fella; 2010]

I almost feel like I have to try explaining why “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare” isn’t in my top ten, or in the number one spot for that matter. It seems like every major music list is naming it the top album of 2010 (SPIN, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, etc).  Let me first say that there are some great songs here: “POWER”, “Dark Fantasy”, “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, “So Apalled”, “Runaway”, “Blame Game”, “Lost in the World”. The fact that I just named seven kick-ass songs out of ten should say something about how solid this album is from start to finish. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself singing “All of the lights!” while shopping for groceries or “This shit’s ridiculous!” while cleaning my room. At times I get annoyed by how much these songs have rubbed their stamp into my brain like a comic strip on silly putty. There is no denying that Kanye has a gift for memorable choruses and rhymes.  BUT, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare” is not the earth-shattering album that some have suggested. It’s not the in-depth psycho-analysis of a crazy man. The only thing insane about Kanye is that he’s insanely rich.  And honestly, if you want an album of a man who is lost and depressed, check out Sufjan Steven’s “Age of ADZ”, but then again, it won’t be nearly as fun or memorable as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Nightmare”.

12. Swans

“My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky”

[Young God; 2010]

At first I was afraid of Swans; I was petrified. I read a few positive reviews of “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” and decided to check it out. After listening to two songs I turned it off. I didn’t get it. Why was this band considered to be legendary?  Then a few weeks later, while talking on the phone with fellow BDWPS contributor SongsSuck, he asked if I’d listened to “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” yet. After getting off the phone, feeling like a fool, I downloaded the album and sat down to give it a good, honest listen. This time I wasn’t bored with the opening track “No Words/No Thoughts”; it literally pained me to listen to the echoing church bells, the ominous organs, and the black metal crackling of the guitars.  I once again turned off the music; his name is SongsSuck for a reason. Then, only a few weeks ago, as I drove across the desolate plains of Kansas, something came over me. In that moment, that chaos that scared me months earlier seemed oddly intriguing.  I quickly found The Swans on my iPod and commenced listening to what goes down as one of the most captivating hours of music I’ve ever experienced.  Once the shroud of noise dissipates, Swans front man Michael Gira emerges with a pummeling series of doom- sludge-dirges, and then they suddenly come to a stop to allow room for the occasional brooding ballad. I guess SongsSucks may like songs after all.

11. The Tallest Man On Earth

“The Wild Hunt”
[Dead Oceans; 2010]

For Christmas my mom gave me Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg Series Vol. 9”, and I’ve been listening to the two disc collection of early recordings a lot the past few weeks.  I’ve always preferred the bootleg releases of Dylan because they are so raw – the guitars squeak, the tape recorder occasionally slips into a muffled state, Bob’s voice cracks and he even forgets words.  It’s as real as Bob as his music get. The Tallest Man On Earth’s “The Wild Hunt” gives me the same feeling of simplicity.  His grisly voice speaks honestly, out in the open without any back-up singers or basslines to interrupt.   The guitar thumps and crackles as Kristian Matsson nimbly fingerpicks and madly strums from one song to the next.  There is no need to polish what Matsson has on “The Wild Hunt”: 10 great folk songs that will have your full attention from start to finish. But while Bob Dylan wrote propaganda songs about the ills of the world, Matsson simply writes great songs about what’s right.

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