Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

The economy has hurt the music industry, just as it has hurt most of our ability to purchase music. There were fewer interesting releases this year than the past few years, and many artists chose to play it safe by revisiting formulae they know to be successful, rather than taking chances with more risky approaches. There were also several albums by well-known artists who had not released substantial new work in years. Some of them warrant merit.

In all, I have identified 100 albums worth recommending, numbering the top 30 and listing the others as “Honorable Mention.” For those of you who don’t know, my tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Death Metal or Traditional Folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list. The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of any other, and each of these 100 albums could easily have made the top 30. With that said, here is my list in ascending order:

30. The Apples In Stereo: “Travellers in Space and Time”
This Denver-based indie pop band is known for their intricate, sunny sound. This, their seventh album since being founded in 1995, continues their approach of combining hummable tunes with interesting Beatles-like harmonies. Key songs: “Dream About the Future” and “No One in the World.”

29. Nneka: “Concrete Jungle”
Although the songs on this album were originally released overseas in 2005 and 2008, this is the first US release from this neo-soul artist whose father was Nigerian and mother is from Germany, where Nneka is based. That partially explains why her songs display such worldliness. Key Songs: “The Uncomfortable Truth,” “Heartbeat,” and “Suffri.”

28. The New Pornographers: “Together”
This is the fifth album from this Vancouver-based, indie rock band, which has received considerable critical acclaim for their superb songwriting and excellent musicianship. Here, they keep up that tradition with a very enjoyable collection. Key songs: “Crash Years” and “Your Hands (Together).”

27. Eric Benét: “Lost In Time”
On this, his sixth album, Eric Benét continues his outstanding R&B career, including duets with artists including Chrisette Michele and Ledisi. If you like good, old-fashioned R&B/soul, you should add this gem to your collection. Key Songs: “Sometimes I Cry,” “Take It,” and “Good Life.”

26. Hot Chip: “One Life Stand”
This London-based techno-dance outfit has released three previous studio albums, and this is as good as any of them, combining a hypnotic musical approach with a classic dance structure. Key songs: “Thieves In the Night,” “Hand Me Down Your Love,” and “One Life Stand.”

25. Rogue Wave: “Permalight”
This Oakland-based indie pop outfit, fronted by Zach Rogue, has released three previous studio albums. Although the personnel has changed over the years, they continue to put out high-energy tunes with catchy hooks, as evidenced by this album. Key songs: “Solitary Gun,” “Good Morning (The Future),” and “Miami, Miami.”

24. Sky Sailing: “An Airplane Carried Me to Bed”
This is a side project of Adam Young, who became famous last year with Owl City and its release of “Fireflies.” Although the songs are similar to those of Owl City (and the Postal Service), they are recorded acoustically, giving them the pretty sound that this album has. Key songs: “Captains of the Sky,” “Brielle,” and “A Little Opera Goes a Long Way.”

23. Sade: “Soldier of Love”
Yes, this is the same Sade (pronounced Shar-day) who has recorded six albums since 1984, and had a huge hit in 1985 with “Smooth Operator.” While her career since then has been uneven, she occasionally releases a gem like this effort…her first new, studio album in 10 years. Key songs: “The Moon and the Sky,” “Soldier of Love,” and “Babyfather,”

22. Eels: “End Times”
The brainchild of Mark Oliver Everett, LA-based Eels has released nine studio albums and appeared on several movie soundtracks. Difficult to classify, Eels is usually listed simply as “alternative.” This is a delightful effort from one of the most consistent acts in the recording industry. Key songs: “Mansions of los Feliz,” “A Line In the Dirt,” “Nowadays,” and “Spectacular Girl.”

21. Belle and Sebastian: “Write About Love”
The Scottish indie rock stalwarts have put out their eighth studio album of fully realized songs, complete with lush melodies and excellent lyrics. These guys, who took their name from a French children’s book, are among the most consistently good acts in the recording industry. Key songs: “I Didn’t See It Coming,” “I Want the World to Stop,” and “Suicide Girl.”

20. Corinne Bailey Rae: “The Sea”
Since her outstanding 2006 debut, British singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae has had her share of problems, including the 2008 death of her husband from an "accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol." This outstanding effort is partly a result of that tragedy and is darker and edgier than her previous recordings. Key songs: “Closer,” “Paris Nights/New York Mornings,” and the heartbreaking title song.

19. Ben Folds & Nick Hornby: “Lonely Avenue”
The unique pairing of the musical talents of North Carolina-based, singer-songwriter Ben Folds (10 previous albums) and the lyrics of English author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) has produced one of the year’s most intriguing albums. If you want something different from the standard, vapid pop of top 40 radio, this is it. Key songs: “Claire’s Ninth,” “Belinda,” “Picture Window,” and “Things You Think.”

18. The National: “High Violet”
This Brooklyn-based, alternative rock band has recorded five albums since their founding in 1999, but this is their best. It is inventive, rich, and thoroughly engaging, while presenting the listener with a montage of different sounds and styles. Key songs: “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Sorrow,” and “England.”

17. The Magnetic Fields: “Realism”
If you’ve followed my reviews for years, you know that I love the work of Stephin Merritt, originally from Boston and the creative force behind the Magnetic Fields. Fortunately for me and other music lovers, Merritt is quite prolific, having released 10 albums with this band since 1991, as well as several side projects. Using acoustic instruments only (including harpsichords), Merritt has fashioned another outstanding album which he humorously named, “Realism.” Key songs: “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” “The Dolls’ Tea Party,” and “Seduced and Abandoned.”

16. Sara Bareilles: “Kaleidoscope Heart”
Occasionally, pop produces an artist like this young woman, who has grown with each of her three albums. A California-based artist who first achieved success at 18, Bareilles could have easily opted for stupid, light pop, but she instead has made a musically astute album with surprising skill and syncopation. Key songs: “Gonna Get Over You,” “King of Anything,” and “Bluebird.”

15. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Original Cast Recording)
This year’s best Broadway soundtrack portrays our seventh president as an emo rock star. Be forewarned—this is far from Rodgers and Hammerstein, complete with profane language and modern references—but it is thoroughly delightful, and star Benjamin Walker is destined to win more than an election (including critical acclaim and a likely Tony Award). Key songs: “I’m Not That Guy,” “Rock Star,” “Public Life,” and “Second Nature.”

14. Neil Young: “Le Noise”
Ironically, despite its title, this album is the least “noisy” of Young’s recent offerings. It is instead one of the more personal efforts from this Canadian artist, who has enthralled us since the 60s through his brilliant work with the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and his solo efforts—this reminds me most of his classic, “Harvest.” Key songs: “Love and War,” “Hitchhiker,” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.”

13. Christina Aguilera: “Bionic”
By this point, Aguilera has so surpassed many of her earlier pop counterparts that she joins Alicia Keys, Beyonce, and Joss Stone as the new Mt. Rushmore of female pop icons. While her foray into acting (“Burlesque”) is garnering mixed reviews, there is no question that her skills as a songstress have become more evident with each album. Key songs: “Bionic,” “Lift Me Up,” and “I Am.”

12. The Dead Weather: “Sea of Cowards”
I was not originally a fan of Jack White, but as he continues to add new wrinkles to his career (White Stripes, Raconteurs), he’s starting to look more like the godfather of modern rock (much like Eric Clapton in the 60s and 70s). Here, he joins Alison Mosshart and others to produce what may be this year’s best pure rock album. Key songs: “Blue Blood Blues,” “The Difference Between Us,” and “Hustle and Cuss.”

11. Brooke Fraser: “Flags”
From New Zealand and the daughter of a former member of the prestigious “All Black” rugby squad, Brooke Fraser has released three albums, but this is her best so far…a collection of smart, intimate songs that remind you of a young Joni Mitchell. Key songs: “Something In the Water,” “Who Are We Fooling,” and a cover of the James Taylor classic, “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

10. Kanye West: “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”
This is the first year that I have included albums that are primarily rap, but the two “hip hop/rap” artists on this list were able to deftly combine very interesting music and speech to make their points effectively. With this, his fifth studio album, the Atlanta-based West seems to be trying to exorcize the demons he accumulated this year through his MTV Video Music Awards rant and his spat with Matt Lauer. The lyrics, although often profane, are worth hearing, and the music is very complementary. Key songs: “Dark Fantasy,” “Blame Game,” and the outstanding “Runaway.”

9. My Chemical Romance: “Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys”
It’s unlikely that anything they do will ever eclipse 2006’s “The Black Parade,” but this is probably My Chemical Romance’s second best of their four albums to date—an anti-corporate concept album written primarily by front man Gerard Way. This New Jersey-based alternative band is my favorite rock band working today. They do everything well, especially when they commit the level of time and effort they did to develop this masterful collection. Key songs: “The Only Hope for Me Is You,” “Bulletproof Heart,” “Sing,” and “Planetary (GO!).”

8. Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore: “Dear Companion”
And now for something completely different—a classically trained cellist (Sollee) and a banjo/guitar-picking folk singer (Moore) collaborating on an album with noticeably Appalachian influences. If either of these artists were less talented, the album would not have worked. But they are, and it does. The songs are sensitive, intelligent, and beautifully played. Whatever you label it, this is just good music. Key songs: “Something, Somewhere, Sometime,” “Sweet Marie,” and “It Won’t Be Long.”

7. We Are the Fallen: “Tear the World Down”
It’s no coincidence that the first album from this goth-rock band sounds like early Evanescence, because it was founded by three members of that band, who split with singer Amy Lee over “creative differences.” To replace her vocal talents, they tapped former American Idol contestant, Carly Smithson, who sounds a lot like her predecessor. The difference here is that where Evanescence had started to sound stale, this band seems to have recaptured the energy and power that had made “Fallen” such a tremendous accomplishment. Key songs: “Bury Me Alive,” “Don’t Leave Me Behind,” and “Sleep Well, My Angel.”

6. The Gaslight Anthem: “American Slang”
Sounding occasionally like fellow New Jerseyan, Bruce Springsteen, this band’s third album crackles with positive energy and outstanding musicianship. It’s the one collection of songs this year that I can just sit back and remember why I enjoy rock music so much. It is simultaneously modern and ageless, but is sure makes me smile and tap my feet. Key songs: “American Slang,” “The Diamond Church Street Choir,” and “Boxer.”

5. Lauren Pritchard: “Wasted In Jackson”
A former star of Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” Lauren Pritchard has released a wonderful first album that makes me think back to the first time I heard Joss Stone, or even further back to Dusty Springfield. A Tennessee native, the 22-year-old Pritchard has the pipes, but also can be subtle when appropriate. Keep an eye on this artist. Key songs: “Not the Drinking,” “Wasted In Jackson,” and “Try a Little Harder.”

4. B.o.B: “B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray”
22-year-old rap artist Bobby Ray Simmons from Georgia performs under the name B.o.B (pronounced Bob). This is his first full album, and he elicited help from artists as diverse as Bruno Mars, Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer), Janelle Monae, and Hayley Williams (of Paramore), who provide the musical interludes between the well-thought-out and adeptly delivered rap segments, but Bob can sing very well too. This is a fully recognized album from an artist who will doubtless be around for years to come. Key songs: “Nothin’ On You,” “Airplanes,” “Ghost In the Machine,” and “Magic.”

3. Field Music: “Field Music (Measure)”
This English band has made my list before and doubtless will again. In three albums since 2004, they have managed to combine a wide range of musical styles, instruments, lyrics, and harmonies into a sound that is generally unclassifiable, but nevertheless excellent. Their use of musical progression is unheard of in most popular genres. This is their best effort to date, and every song is worth hearing. Key songs: “Them That Do Nothing,” “Measure,” “Effortlessly,” and “The Rest Is Noise.”

2. Vampire Weekend: “Contra”
This New York band’s debut was my favorite album in 2008, and they followed it up with this gem. Their combination of African beats and pop melodies hearkens back to Paul Simon’s classic “Graceland,” but it is unique among modern recording artists. The fact that they do it so well, while writing such likeable songs and using such inventive production techniques, puts them ahead of nearly every other band working today. Key songs: “Horchata,” “White Sky,” “Holiday,” “Run,” and “Giving Up the Gun.”

1. Arcade Fire: “The Suburbs”
Hailing from Montreal, this band has released three albums—“Funeral” (2004), “Neon Bible” (2007), and “The Suburbs.” The first two were among the best albums of their respective years, but this one is the best album of 2010. Starting with the excellent songwriting skills of the husband and wife duo of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, adding in the superb musicianship and emotionally charged singing, and completing the effort with lush, full production, Arcade Fire has produced an ode to suburban existence that should be listened to by anyone professing to enjoy modern, melodic music. It doesn’t get much better than this. Key songs: “The Suburbs,” “Ready to Start,” “We Used to Wait,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”

The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):
• Beach House: “Teen Dream”
• The Black Keys: “Brothers”
• Bombay Bicycle Club: “Flaws”
• Broken Bells: “Broken Bells”
• Butch Walker: “I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart”
• Chrisette Michele: “Let Freedom Reign”
• Codeine Velvet Club: “Codeine Velvet Club”
• Crystal Bowersox: “Farmer’s Daughter”
• A Cursive Memory: “Let Love In”
• Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse: “Dark Night of the Soul”
• Dwele: “Wants World Women”
• Ed Harcourt: “Lustre”
• Elizabeth & The Catapult: “The Other Side of Zero”
• Elton John & Leon Russell: “The Union”
• Envy On the Coast: “Lowcountry”
• Freedy Johnston: “Rain On the City”
• Gil Scott-Heron: “I’m New Here”
• Gorillaz: “Plastic Beach”
• Greg Laswell: “Take a Bow”
• Hellogoodbye: “Would It Kill You?”
• Hinder: “All American Nightmare”
• Hot Day at the Zoo: “Zoograss”
• Janelle Monáe: “The ArchAndroid”
• Jenny and Johnny: “I’m Having Fun Now”
• Jimmy Eat World: “Invented”
• Joanna Newsom: “Have One On Me”
• John Legend: “Wake Up!”
• Joshua Radin: “The Rock and the Tide”
• Kate Walsh: “Peppermint Radio”
• Katy Perry: “Teenage Dream”
• Ke$ha: “Cannibal”
• Kings of Leon: “Come Around Sundown”
• LCD Soundsystem: “This Is Happening”
• The Len Price 3: “Pictures”
• Lightspeed Champion: “Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You.”
• The Like: “Release Me”
• Lucy Wainwright Roche: “Lucy”
• Maroon 5: “Hands All Over”
• Massive Attack: “Heligoland”
• Meat Loaf: “Hang Cool Teddy Bear”
• MGMT: “Congratulations”
• Michael Franti & Spearhead: “The Sound of Sunshine”
• The Morning Benders: “Promises”
• Motion City Soundtrack: “My Dinosaur Life”
• Mumford & Sons: “Sigh No More”
• Natasha Bedingfield: “Strip Me”
• Neon Trees: “Animal”
• Owl City: “Ocean Eyes”
• Pete Yorn: “Pete Yorn”
• Peter Gabriel: “Scratch My Back”
• Plain White T’s: “Wonders of the Younger”
• R. Kelly: “Love Letter”
• RJD2: “The Colossus”
• Robyn: “Body Talk”
• The Rocket Summer: “Of Men and Angels”
• Rosie Doonan: “Pot of Gold”
• Rufus Wainwright: “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu”
• Scissor Sisters: “Night Work”
• Seal: “6: Commitment”
• Secondhand Serenade: “Hear Me Now”
• Serj Tankian: “Imperfect Harmonies”
• Shout Out Louds: “Work”
• Sting: “Symphonicities”
• Surfer Blood: “Astro Coast”
• Tracey Thorn: “Love and Its Opposite”
• Usher: “Raymond v Raymond”
• We Are Scientists: “Barbara”
• The Webb Sisters: “Savages”
• Weezer: “Death to False Metal”
• Yeasayer: “Odd Blood”

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