Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top Albums: 2010

It's been a while... time to dust off the old blogging machine (had to change the name though; the old one didn't make sense anymore). Four summer classes and eight, count 'em, EIGHT fall classes will do that to ya. Anyway, there's only about a week and a half left in the year, so I thought I'd share my favorite records with y'all. They made me laugh, cry, and ponder the meaning of life... not really. Mostly, they just kept me company on my commute to work and while I graded hundreds of papers. I even saw some of them live. I'll post my favorite songs and movies later. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to regularly spout my patented brand of B.S. at ya on a more regular basis. Anyway, we'll start with the Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order:

!!! - Strange Weather, Isn't It?
AM Taxi - We Don't Stand a Chance
The Bird & The Bee - Interpreting the Masters Vol. 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall & John Oates
The Black Keys - Brothers
The Bouncing Souls - Ghosts on the Boardwalk
Crazy Heart - OST
Eminem - Recovery
Gold Motel - Summer House
The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
Kate Nash - My Best Friend Is You
Minus the Bear - Omni
Sara Bareilles - Kaleidoscope Heart
Sundowner - We Chase the Waves
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
Wavves - King of the Beach

Put that in your hollowed-out apple and smoke it. That's 15 records, meaning the forthcoming Top 10 (with pictures and videos... ooohhh! aaahhh!) makes it an even 25 (although that's definitely an odd number). Here we go:

 10) She & Him - Volume Two/Jenny and Johnny - I'm Having Fun Now (tie)
Produced by: M. Ward/Jenny and Johnny
Standout tracks: "In the Sun," "Don't Look Back"/"Scissor Runner," "Just Like Zeus"

A little controversy right off the bat! I'm good like that. But I figure I can get away with lumping these two together into one entry. You know, the whole "former actress decides to make '60s throwback pop album with well-known dude guitarist" thing. Granted, Jenny "Jenny" Lewis has been doing it a lot longer than Zooey "She" Deschanel, but they both pull it off with equal aplomb here. I'll give the M. Ward (the eponymous "Him") the nod for his excellent guitarwork, but Johnathan Rice ("Johnny"... duh) gets credit for lending his vocal talents to many of the tracks. Regardless of who does what, both are near-perfect summer albums -- vibrant guitars/keys, bounding rhythms, sunny harmonies, fetching choruses, the works. The friendly interplay between each duo is as palpable as summer sunshine. Makes me wonder what the next actress/guitarist combo will be... Natalie Portman/Brendan Benson? How about Lindsay Lohan/Sufjan Stevens? I might actually pay to see that. Or maybe these two acts just do the musical equivalent of wife-swapping. Or maybe get Deschanel's hubby (Ben Gibbard) or Lewis's former bandmate (Blake Sennett) involved. Sounds like a hell of a musical orgy.

She & Him - "In the Sun":

9) Motion City Soundtrack - My Dinosaur Life
Produced by: Mark Hoppus
Standout tracks: "Disappear," "Stand Too Close," "Pulp Fiction"

See my last post (waaaaay back in April, yikes) for a more detailed write-up, but I'll just say that the band made a good choice teaming up with Mark Hoppus again for this one. Some really good, poppy stuff. The album is rife with clever, albeit nerdy, lyrics about everything from anime to Veronica Mars; a pop culture junkie like yours truly can't help but smile at every reference. Coupled with the songwriting sensibilities and instrumental panache that the band perfected over three previous albums, MCS's major label debut (seriously? seems like they've been on a major the whole time...) is their most polished effort yet, even if it lacks the emotional depth of their first two records. But who cares about emotional depth when you have dinosaurs and keyboards, right (not to mention Quentin Tarantino references)? Speaking of Tarantino references, "Pulp Fiction" is easily one of my favorite jams of the year -- too bad they don't have a video for it.


8) Chromeo - Business Casual
Produced by: Philippe Zdar
Standout tracks: "Don't Turn the Lights On," "The Right Type"

I first heard of these guys when flipping through the channels when I lived in L.A. a few years ago (has it been that long? Damn...). I stopped on Fuse when the video for "Bonafied Lovin'" came on. It's definitely inspired by one of my all-time favorite videos (Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing"), so of course I was watching, regardless of the band. Turns out the song was also awesome -- funky, synth-y, and irreverent. Years later, I'm still not entirely sure if I'm supposed to be taking these guys seriously (watch their videos to see what I mean), but I don't really care. Their latest is smooth, immaculately produced, is an absolute blast to drive to, and makes me feel dirty in the best possible way. Do yourself a favor and check it out -- just be careful if you listen to it in public, because panties are gonna be a-droppin'. Bring an umbrella. A panty umbrella.

"Don't Turn the Lights On":

7) Jimmy Eat World - Invented
Produced by: Mark Trombino, Jimmy Eat World
Standout tracks: "Heart Is Hard to Find," "Coffee and Cigarettes," "Action Needs Audience," "Mixtape"

Hey, I'm from Arizona (thank god not Mesa though); it had to be on here. Local hero shoutout aside, Jim Adkins and Co. have established themselves as the consummate purveyors of heart-on-the-sleeve pop-rock, and this record further hammers that point home. Tonally speaking, this record bears a striking resemblance to 2004's Futures (maybe my favorite JEW record... don't tell anyone) with its crushing guitars, brooding basslines, electronic flourishes, and world-weary sensibilities. Definitely more of a downer than their last one, Chase This Light. I think this is actually the record I was expecting them to release after Futures (which is why I didn't like Chase This Light as much at first). At the same time though, it also feels like a possible throwback to/update of their seminal (haha... seminal) 1999 masterpiece Clarity. If you don't believe me, just listen to the title track. Or "Mixtape," the latest in JEW's patented series of epic album closers. Or "Action Needs Audience" -- yup, that's Tom Linton on vox, who we haven't heard from since, you guessed it, Clarity. They even brought back the same producer. A step forward while looking back. Sounds dangerous, but JEW pulls it off with confidence.

"My Best Theory":

6) Bad Religion - The Dissent of Man
Produced by Joe Barresi
Standout tracks: "Only Rain," "Wrong Way Kids," "Cyanide," "I Won't Say Anything"

It's almost hard to believe that Bad Religion has been around for 30 years... and they're still putting out excellent music! Even crazier is that they're not even the oldest band on the list (see #2). Released 31 years after their formation, The Dissent of Man marks Bad Religion's best album in at least a decade, a multifaceted effort that blows the last few by-the-numbers releases out of the water. Rather than an assortment of >2:00 filler tracks peppered with standouts ("Sorrow," "Let The Eat War," "New Dark Ages," et al.), Dissent's offerings are consistently full-fledged, ranging from the blistering ("Only Rain," "The Resist Stance") to the tuneful ("Devil in Stitches," "Cyanide"). It's a decisively mature effort from a band that seemed to have plateaued in recent years -- and it plays great live too, even if the band is a bunch of balding graybushes.

5) Stars - The Five Ghosts
Produced by: Tom McFall
Standout tracks: "Wasted Daylight," "Fixed," "We Don't Want Your Body," "The Passenger"

There's just something about Canucks and their indie rock -- moody, haunting, grandiose, and maybe a bit self-indulgent. You'd think I'm referring to the Arcade Fire and their critically-fellated The Suburbs, but no. The Suburbs is a fine album... but no -- clocking in at over an hour, for every resonant high note ("Ready to Start," "City with No Children," for example), there's two or three aimless, ephemeral interludes or refrains (I'll stop just short of calling them filler). I'm all about appreciating music on the album level, but I generally like my music (especially indie from Canadia... spelling intentional) a bit more grounded. Enter Stars, something like second cousins once-removed from Arcade Fire in the incestuous Canadian indie family (probably closer than that... I know both bands have been involved with the musician's orgy that is Broken Social Scene). Stars takes the general aesthetic (male/female vocals, spellbinding choruses, moody atmospheres, etc.), adds a few electronic flourishes and slightly saccharine lyrics, and bottles it up into a spacey, 40-minute indie-pop gem. Torquil Campbell is solid as ever, but Amy Millan might be at the top of her game here.


Hyperlink, because their record company is lame.

4) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
 Produced by: Kanye West and about a billion other people
Standout tracks: "Dark Fantasy," "Monster," "Hell of a Life"

Although someone needs to teach Kanye a thing or two about comma usage with coordinate adjectives (not to mention, I don't know, general douchebaggery), he's nonetheless about as singular a talent there is in mainstream music today (be it rap, hip-hop, pop, or whatever you want to call this). After a couple years of misstep after misstep (808's and Heartbreaks, Taylor Swift, etc.... although I think "George Bush doesn't care about black people" is one of the quotes of the decade), he's back in full force with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye's strengths -- production, pop sensibilities, A+-list guest talent -- are on full display here. Fantasy ranges from elegant and personal ("Dark Fantasy") to good, dirty fun ("Hell of a Life") to full-on, rap-orgy shitshow ("Monster," featuring, no joke, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Bon freaking Iver... not that that's a single person or anything). Although Kanye's weakness has always been his lyrics, even the missteps are gold here: "So much head, I woke up to Sleepy Hollow," for example. I get what he's trying to say, but it still makes no sense... and it's kind of genius. Just like most of Kanye's stuff. The only real swing and miss is "Runaway," a lumbering 9-minute quasi-apology track ("Let's hear it for the douchebags") that drags the record down in the middle of a strong run. But, as always with Kanye, you've got to take the... not necessarily bad, but at least strange, with the good. And there's plenty of both to go around on this record.

Short video for "Power":

3) Against Me! - White Crosses
Produced by: Butch Vig
Standout tracks: "White Crosses," "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," "Spanish Moss"

Again, see the April post for my last writeup on the album, but this is one that has stayed with me all year (having leaked all the way back in March). I actually saw these guys in July (opening for Silversun Pickups in Vegas), and the new stuff plays pretty well, even if the crowd wasn't exactly amped up to hear it. I'll have to make a point to see them headlining. Moving on, the same stuff I said about them last time holds true -- another step away from their roots, and they're better off for it (even if many "fans" don't exactly think so). Why can't bands mature and change in peace? They don't want to make the same record, and play the same sound, over and over, and I certainly don't want to listen to it. Move along if you don't like it. End mini-rant.

2) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Mojo
Produced by: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Ryan Ulyate
Standout tracks: "Jefferson Jericho Blues," "First Flash of Freedom," "Running Man's Bible," "High in the Morning," "Good Enough"

Speaking of bands from Florida, bands maturing, and bands I've seen live this year, let's talk about Tom Petty and the mother fucking Heartbreakers. They've been my favorite band for a long time, but their studio work has been stagnant, having not released a great record since freaking 1991 (Into the Great Wide Open, although Petty's solo work, especially Wildflowers, has been more than enough to bridge the gap). Enter Mojo, recorded entirely live and a rollicking return to form for one of American rock and roll's most legendary acts. Far and away the Heartbreakers' best work, Petty takes a backseat to his prodigious (and criminally underappreciated) bandmates, especially keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. In fact, this could easily be said to be Campbell's album, as his scintillating guitarwork is the driving force behind the record. Recalling greats like Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, as well as the highlights of his own five decade-spanning career, Campbell marks his territory as one of the best rock guitarists around. Master of the slide guitar, Campbell sears, shreds, and picks his way through stompers ("I Should Have Known It"), slow-burners ("First Flash of Freedom," "Good Enough"), and everything in between -- even a bit of (perhaps ill-advised) reggae ("Don't Pull Me Over"... a Tom Petty song about weed, 'nuff said). Also prominently featured is Tench, owner of probably the coolest name in rock and roll (just say it.... Benmont Tench... awesome) and smooth pimp on the keys (check out "Running Man's Bible"). Behind it all, of course, is Petty himself, rock and roll's aging bearded badass. Easily the most musically impressive release of the year -- and it's phenomenal live. Glad to have my favorite band back in top form. This record wails.

"Jefferson Jericho Blues":

1) The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
Produced by: Ted Hutt
Standout tracks: "The Diamond Street Church Choir," "Boxer," "The Spirit of Jazz"

I'll admit it -- I dropped the ball on The '59 Sound.  I completely underappreciated it at first -- it's definitely a top-3 album for that year, not buried in the late teens like I originally had it. Obviously, I won't be making the same mistake a second time, as American Slang has occupied its #1 spot practically since it leaked back in April. I say "practically" because it didn't get to that #1 spot until track 4 -- "The Diamond Street Church Choir," easily my favorite, and the best, song of the year. I knew it from the glib first few chords, the "Woo-hoooo" vocal intro, and the suave, lilting first few lines: "Now the lights go low on the avenue / and the cars pass by in the rain..." Then it all came together in the Van Morrison-esque chorus and totally blew me away. This is a band capable of making some of the best music of this generation is what I thought, and still think. Hailing from the ripe musical turf of New Jersey (influences as far-ranging as, duh, Bruce Springsteen to Frank Sinatra to The Bouncing Souls are evident here), Gaslight's songs are endemic of that tradition and indelibly American. And American Slang is a veritable melting pot of those influences, their punk rock roots (explored on their debut, Sink or Swim), and '50s-era rock 'n' roll (The '59 Sound). The result is a sound, a language, all their own, distilled by Brian Fallon, who barks, growls, and croons his blue-collar, punk-laureate lyrics over clean guitars and forceful rhythm and percussion. The production is perfect and the harmonies are tight -- not a note or beat is misplaced. After a few listens, it hit me that these aren't songs so much as they are anthems, wrought by guys that clearly just love making, and listening to, music.

"American Slang":

Hope you enjoyed the list. Let me know what you loved this year -- lord knows I missed more than a few great albums. Leave a list or a link in the comments. I'll follow this up with my favorite jams of the year in my next post. Until then (and I promise it'll be sooner than eight months...), ciao!

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