My Top 10 Albums of 2010
My Top Ten Albums of 2010
After what I considered a down year in quality in 2009, 2010 was a nice bounce-back year for good music. Although I didn’t get a chance to listen to everything that came down the pike, here are my choices for the best 10 albums I did get a chance to hear. We’ll count them down in reverse order, of course, to heighten the suspense.
10. Women + Country by Jakob Dylan: The knee-jerk reaction has always been to compare Dylan’s work to that of his father. In truth, the shadow that’s been dogging him was cast by his early success with The Wallflowers, success that cast him as a rocker, a role for which his subtle songwriting talents were ill-suited. He gets it right on this, his second solo effort, guided by the Midas touch of producer T Bone Burnett (who also produced #8 and #5 on this list.) This set is uniformly fine, ranging effortlessly from gentle shuffles to bruised ballads.
9. Plastic Beach by Gorillaz: While the eclectic, cartoon-band side project of Damon Albarn had been responsible for several instantly memorable singles, their two albums felt like less than the sum of their parts. No such problems exist on Plastic Beach. The guest stars range from hip-hop legends (De La Soul, Snoop Dogg) to soul royalty (Bobby Womack) to a fantastically gruff turn by Lou Reed on “Some Kind Of Nature.” But it’s Albarn himself who shines the brightest on enigmatically gorgeous pop songs like “Melancholy Hill” and “Rhinestone Eyes”.
8. The Union by Elton John and Leon Russell: You got two comebacks for the price of one here. For Russell, it was a return from years of obscurity and recent health problems to sounding like he never left his 70’s heyday on tracks like “If It Wasn’t For Bad.” John, meanwhile, shed the glitzy fluff that he’s been producing for much of the past three decades and burned through songs like “Hey Ahab” like the hungry up-and-come he once was. When they join up, as on the regret-stained beauty “I Should Have Sent Roses”, the results are potent. And, man, those pianos sound great.
7. Band Of Joy by Robert Plant: Plant’s return to American roots music after the mega-successful Raising Sand has a lot more fire in its belly than its predecessor. The song choices are much more eclectic, with the Everly Brothers being subbed out for two selections from the atmospheric indie band Low. That allows a crack band of Nashville pros to give Plant something meatier with which to work, and he responds. The banshee wail might not be in his repertoire anymore, but his interpretive gifts are more profound than ever before, as evidenced by a stellar take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way.”
6. Teen Dream by Beach House: Very few young bands can match a consistency of tone with genuine songwriting chops, but Beach House nail it with no sweat on their third album. Alex Scally handles the bulk of the musical work with his clean guitar lines, allowing Victoria Legrand to fill in colors on her keyboard and handle the vocals. And what vocals they are, tripping from a guttural lower register to a siren-like trill on the high parts. The two cast a spell that’s abetted by the moody, melancholy songs, and the album has excellent flow from start-to-finish.
5. National Ransom by Elvis Costello: Costello is back in genre-hopping mode on this album, recalling his 80’s landmark solo albums Spike and King Of America. In one moment, he’s sideswiping profiteers on the scorching title track; in the next, he’s offering a tender ballad like “All These Strangers.” If you can’t handle the stylistic shifts, which range here from vaudeville to jazz to country to rock and much more, then you really haven’t been paying much attention to E.C.’s career lately. What matters is that it’s his most consistent set of tunes in quite some time.
4. Contra by Vampire Weekend: If their debut album was like an island party, their second effort is more like the hazy morning after. The adventurousness in their music continues unabated, but there’s a depth to the songwriting here that allows some colder air to filter into the tropics. Frontman Ezra Koenig writes tales of high-society types suddenly brought low by their circumstances, forced to live in reality when their dreams became too costly. And on the closing standout, “I Think Ur a Contra”, the bouncy beats are replaced by woozy strings as betrayed ideals pile up on the beach.
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West: If there’s a problem with this album, and it’s really nitpicking to say it, it’s that there’s a little too much of everything going on. A few less guest stars, a little bit more lightness to leaven the overall ominous tone could have helped. But how can you fault West for going for broke and hitting his target more often than not? For all of the A-listers on hand helping out, nothing is as mesmerizing as when Kanye himself takes the mic and lays his soul bare for the world to see, as on “Runaway”, a thrilling masterpiece of self-flagellation.
2. High Violet by The National: Like one of their own songs that slowly builds to a breathtaking crescendo, The National’s career has been building to the peak that they reached on this wonderful album. The band’s sound is somehow both carefully constructed and emotionally animated. Meanwhile Matt Berninger’s deadpan vocals careen off into the messier corners of daily life, where dreams are rarely realized and settling for less becomes the only option. On stunning songs like “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” and “Runaway”, the band hits high points for which most other bands don’t even dare to aim.
1. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire: Their first two albums were brilliant, but this is the most cohesive statement yet by the best rock band to come out of the first decade of the millennium. Lead singer Win Butler takes a hard look at his childhood (spent in the Houston area) and finds that the past isn’t quite done with him yet. Rousing rockers mix brilliantly with soulful ballads, and the band hits one anthemic peak after another. Lest you think it’s all a downer, Regine Chassagne’s joyous vocals on the discofied “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” can’t contained by any cul-de-sac.
I could have gone up to 20 albums easily this year, so that means there are some good ones that I left out. So what did I miss, music fans?