SPIN – 40 Best Albums of 2010
All that glitters is not gold. But we can all agree: All that glitters is fabulous. As was 2010. The year saw pop’s reigning megalomaniac bare his torment on Twitter, his soul on a masterful album, and his Lil Kanye in a leaked photo — impressive, all. Since there’s a lot more to make sense of, we’re going to make like glitter and reflect.”
It opens with “Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything,” but the first album from these Scots since 2005 testifies to the band’s faith in the transcendence of guitar pop’s eternal chord changes. The sound has grown sweeter and quieter since their ’90s heyday, but the charming singer-songwriter trio — Norman Blake, Gerard Love, Raymond McGinley — still induce swoons. Achingly lovely harmonies and stirring choruses commemorate everyday life’s humble rewards with deceptive ease. JON YOUNG
“Hop in the blue, blue sky,” sang avant-disco luminary Arthur Russell on 1986′s “Let’s Go Swimming.” And with Swim, Dan Snaith does just that. The chameleon formerly known as Manitoba has explored shoegaze, IDM, krautrock, and shiny ’60s psych-pop, but his latest dives into headphone-friendly dance music’s deep blue. What does he find, amid floaty vocals, MDMA grooves, and poignant lyrics? “Sun, sun, sun.” Add the vibrant pathos of “Odessa” and “Kaili,” and you’ve got the first grown-up chillwave album. MARC HOGAN
Eminem spent his career’s first phase as music’s sharpest cultural critic; several years into a second act the rapper himself probably doubted he’d see, he’s more interested in analyzing Eminem. Yet the commercially robust Recovery never succumbs to self-help squishiness, thanks to the steely pop-rap production of “Love the Way You Lie” and “Not Afraid” and to Em’s refusal to go any easier on No. 1 than he did on Mariah, Moby, or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Cleaning out his closet, he leaves no corner unswept. MIKAEL WOOD
Dicey is what the Walkmen do best. Take “Juveniles,” the first song on the New Yorkers’ ace sixth album. Its brilliance lies in how seamlessly they bridge the distance between adolescent opposition (“You’re one of us / Or one of them,” rasps Hamilton Leithauser) and adult acceptance (those wry guitars). Charging ahead (“Angela Surf City”) or looking back (the druggy doo-wop of “Torch Song”), the band build their elegant tension. Lisbon is a rock rarity, dramatizing sloppy emotion with old-pro craftsmanship. DAVID MARCHESE
THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM
These soul-punk Jersey boys had no shortage of new-Bruce competition in 2010. But only American Slang matched knowing tri-state references with choruses as fist-pumpingly catchy as Old Man Springsteen’s. In love with cars and records and girls (in or out of their summer clothes), frontman Brian Fallon taps a rich vein of all-American romance; the only thing missing is a description of his and his lady’s mortgage woes. “It takes so long to find the words and the beat,” he sings in “Stay Lucky.” He’s got ‘em now. M.W.
BAND OF JOY
Bands are always trying to swing the hammer of the gods, but it took this legend to invoke 1970′s Led Zeppelin III — the inscrutable Zep album that now sounds like a freak-folk milestone. And so does Band of Joy’s old, weird Americana, steeped in the black hours before Sunday morning comes down. Alt-country icon Buddy Miller produces and plays from-the-gut emotive guitar on covers of Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, and Low, while the restless Plant sounds more at home than ever. An immigrant song, indeed. DAVID MENCONI
To follow up the album this magazine named 2007′s best, the closest thing to an American Clash once again wed Greg Graffin’s verbosity and Joe Strummer’s vulnerability to nearly flawless pop-rock spit-shined by Butch Vig. When frontman Tom Gabel isn’t name-checking Robert McNamara or St. Augustine or hating on anarchists for their mob mentality, he’s crooning two heart-rending ballads, one of which could have been a hit for John Waite in 1984. Which is why this may be the most punk record they’ll ever make. DOUG BROD
TED LEO AND THE PHARMACISTS
THE BRUTALIST BRICKS
Commitment should be rewarded, especially when a passionate lifer makes a searing return to form. This densely packed, barnstorming set of pum-mel-ing hooks and get-off-yer-ass politics finds Leo as angrily articulate as ever. “The Stick” rails against voter apathy with a Pistols-like ferocity, but on the pounding, Billy Bragg-adocious “Woke Up Near Chelsea,” he kicks the soapbox aside to wallow with the rest of us: “Well, we all got a job to do.” A punk’s work is never done. CHRIS MARTINS
K.R.I.T. WUZ HERE
With this masterfully crafted proper album masquerading as a regional mixtape, Mississippi’s Big K.R.I.T. confesses and flosses over his own seamless, bracing production in an agitated drawl that rivals the vexed gravity of UGK’s Ridin’ Dirty or Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother. His reach is startling: spiritually bereft testimony (“Children of the World”); hypnotic R&B chime (“I Gotta Stay”); filthy, rawdog bounce (“Country Shit”); and blood-rushing bravado (“Just Touched Down”). CHARLES AARON
Over two decades, Britt Daniel and Co. have released seven increasingly successful albums of barbed power pop, despite a mid-career major-label debacle that would have sent anyone less stout-hearted running for law school. The price for that consistency, though, is that Spoon are taken for granted. Which is a shame — the bass line in “The Mystery Zone” is as much a clinic in minimalist groove as “I Turn My Camera On,” while “Got Nuffin’” and the strutting “I Saw the Light” exude a well-earned swagger. STEVE KANDELL
THE BLACK KEYS
The Black Keys once sounded like the product of some previously unknown Ohio tributary of the Mississippi Delta. Brothers, however, is an ocean-sized record that ornaments the protean boogie blues of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney with a bit of glitz. Their modestly grungy garage is now a cavernous expanse with room for pop-funk action (“Tighten Up”), keyboard fairy dust (“Too Afraid to Love You”), and a stirring cover of Jerry Butler’s Philly soul classic “Never Gonna Give You Up.” D. MENCONI
Take a vintage ’80s Jackson guitar and strum thick-necked power chords. Take a vault of Kurtis Mantronik drum tracks and play ‘em on a blown-out ghetto blaster. Take a never-was teen-pop diva and let her howl. Take a look at Sleigh Bells — rock stars. The Brooklyn duo’s debut, masterminded by guitarist Derek Miller (ex of metalcore crew Poison the Well), is cacophony as revelation. Alexis Krauss’ voice, a girlish murmur exploding into demon shrieks, is a godsend from hell. And Treats is the sound of pop going postal. SEAN FENNESSEY
Call this retirement-age rocker a “crank” and he’s likely to just turn it up to ten, as he does on his fieriest album since Kurt quoted “Hey Hey, My My.” Stripped down to just his guitar and a roomful of producer Daniel Lanois’ effects, Le Noise is angry and playful, coarse and tender, adventurous and meditative. Embodying both the grizzled sage and the snotty upstart, Young takes us on a journey through his past and America’s present mind state, painting a portrait of the artist as an old man with a young man’s indomitable spirit. ANDY BETA
That something so powerfully elemental could emerge from a bored shop clerk’s secret flirtations with GarageBand is just part of Glasser’s magic. Los Angeles’ Cameron Mesirow loops, sings, and stumbles her way into a beguiling debut where tropical pop and electronic folk skip hand in hand through a fairy circle. Like a less creepy Fever Ray, or BjÃ¶rk as an actual human being, Mesirow holds Ring together with her magnetic voice, layering hook upon hook until each song becomes one gorgeously surging chant. C.M.
The best-known National song, and the one that closes their sets with fits of caterwauling on the part of singer Matt Berninger, is “Mr. November,” from 2005′s Alligator. Though Violet’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” comes close to that sort of dark, anthemic display, these Brooklynites-by-way-of-Ohio have gotten bigger as they’ve turned further inward. “Terrible Love,” “Sorrow,” and “Afraid of Everyone” sound as advertised — melancholy, melodramatic, never quite maudlin. It’s a tightrope walk, sure, but they never slip. S.K.
“If I treated someone else the way I treat myself, I’d be in jail,” cries Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes in a moment of clarity on his tenth album, which is streamlined and confessional for him but would seem utterly crazy coming from anyone else. Turning to producer Jon Brion, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and divas Janelle MonÃ¡e and Solange Knowles for funky assistance, Barnes pares down his outrageous excess with Princed-out results that consistently strike psych-pop paydirt. This False Priest feels mighty real. BARRY WALTERS
KING OF THE BEACH
A backstory of prodigious weed intake, emotional meltdowns, and being the boyfriend (maybe even the “Boyfriend” boyfriend) of Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino earned Wavves’ Nathan Williams as much chatter as his ingenious beach-punk tantrums. That’ll change. Snotty-sweet insecure fuzzballs “Post Acid” and “Super Soaker” pop with the problem-child energy of early Green Day and Jay Reatard (whose former rhythm section back Williams). He’s got the girl; writing songs so well kicks sand in haters’ faces. D. MARCHESE
After surviving the Britpop Wars, Damon Albarn has blurred the lines between musical genres with a casual yet wildly ambitious aplomb. For his third album with cartoon gang Gorillaz, he crafts a highly consumable diatribe against consumer society, inspiring Snoop Dogg to free-associate playfully, and Lou Reed to croon quixotically, on the subject of plastics, while the pulsing single “Stylo” (featuring Albarn, Mos Def, and soul belter Bobby Womack) makes a “love is electricity” metaphor overload the senses. A.B.
CEE LO GREEN
THE LADY KILLER
While his church-trained vocal shouting reaches back some 60 years or more to rock’n'blues pioneer Little Richard, this Dirty South icon has searched out next-level sounds via Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley. Here, he contemporizes Motown, Quincy Jones, and other classic productions on pop mini-symphonies every bit as expressive as his pipes, and the sharp cowriting from Bruno Mars, Rick Nowels, and other collaborators is similarly substantial. While others offer filler, Cee Lo delivers a dozen “Fuck You”s. B.W.
Toronto noiseniks Alice Glass and Ethan Kath seriously upgrade their Tetris crunk and fussy skronk to a three-dimensional, darkly digital disco. Cascades of actual keyboard notes replace the lo-bit barrage of the past, 4/4 rave beats prevail, and static is used sparingly. Best of all, on hypnotic single “Celestica,” Glass discovers her melodic side, which proves to be a sexier, more nuanced kind of dangerous. She was once on the ground floor slashing and scratching. Now she’s above it all, cooing orders to the war machines below. C.M.
There is no “Kids Pt. 2″ or “Time to Pretend Again.” But MGMT’s second album offers something that the band’s hit debut didn’t: perspective. Success rendered core duo Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden’s faux rock-star disillusionment vrai. But instead of becoming cranks, the pair look within, creating a series of formally inventive, always catchy tributes to the post-punk and baroque pop they grokked before fame set in. Congratulations means their next move, thankfully, remains a mystery. D. MARCHESE
EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
Evoking both lo-fi punk venues and high-art performance spaces, No Age create their own true habitat. Perhaps accompanying Bob Mould when he reprised some of HÃ¼sker DÃ¼’s classic songs live helped Dean Spunt and Randy Randall conceive their most lucid, openhearted record yet. Rather than allowing choruses to bob amid oceanic feedback, such outbursts drive their bubblegum hooks even deeper. In the process, the Los Angeles duo prove expert at balancing pop basics and acidic noise. A.B.
For anyone who cares a whit about rock history, the fact that Superchunk’s first album in nine years not only exists, but is also fantastic, should rank as the feel-good story of the year. The breathless stutter-step of “My Gap Feels Weird” and “Winter Games” is affirmation that Superchunk’s legacy transcends the ’90s or “indie” or anything other than making grown-ups pogo like they’re stepping on hot coals. A wake-up call for bands half their age who think it’s as simple as playing a half-assed pop tune at double time. S.K.
The Baltimore duo were peeved when Katy Perry got all Inception with her own plunge into the “Teenage Dream” realm, but she couldn’t diminish Beach House’s eerie reveries. On the year’s most Kubla Khan-like dose of dream pop, the group’s previously hazy songwriting components cohere to great effect: the opiate melodies deepen (“Real Love”), Victoria Legrand’s anodyne vocals seduce and haunt (“Silver Soul”), and Alex Scally’s arrangements shimmer (“Walk in the Park”), making for hypnagogic bliss unbound by age. A.B.
THANK ME LATER
Erstwhile child actor and burgeoning rap superstar Aubrey “Drake” Graham did something brave on his debut album: He made it deeply personal and chillingly quiet. On the follow-up, with its ice-cave keyboards, glass-eyed R&B choruses, gaudy guests, and indispensable production from Noah “40″ Shebib, he challenges his heroes to see how slow they can go. Meanwhile, Drake pines for a college ex, tempts a nubile nation, and tries to play big-boy rapper. But he’s never more interesting than when he’s calm, sad, and uncool. S.F.
If you were casting a Civil War movie, you’d have Patrick Stickles’ 8×10 on your wall. Winter-famine thin with a beard to match, Titus Andronicus’ leader more than looks the part; he takes the concept of a nation divided and sprints with it on a storming, powerhouse album that’s as much about cultural and identity confusion in 2010 as 1863. The Jersey rockers’ second full-length earns its epic conceit, never plodding or bludgeoning or feeling like something you wouldn’t play loud with the windows down. The Union forever. S.K.
CRAZY FOR YOU
No surprise Best Coast were tapped to open Weezer’s “Memories” nostalgia tour; L.A.-based singer-songwriter Bethany Cosentino channels the sun-blanched “Surf Wax America” vibe better than Rivers Cuomo himself. Her band’s debut is a misty nod to the â€¨Ronettes’ harmonies, the Everly Brothers’ lilt, and the Beach Boys’ clean, succinct coastal pop, all exquisitely framed with lo-fi distortion. Even when fuzzed into froth, Cosentino’s boy-crazy summer drawl always has a sincere sheen. STACEY ANDERSON
SIR LUCIOUS LEFT FOOT:THE SONG OF CHICO DUSTY
Label politics kept the Aquemini-echoing AndrÃ© 3000-Raekwon collabo “Royal Flush” off this first official solo album by OutKast’s street-savvier half. Lame? Yeah. Fitting, too. While Lucious is a great rap album in a classic sense, its heavy, heady funk never looks back. Guests kill: Gucci Mane on the soul-woozy “Shine Blockas,” even dissolute producer Scott Storch on teeth-rattler “Shutterbugg.” But “General Patton” prevails: “Let’s be clear / I’m a leader, not your peer.” Boi, don’t stop. M.H.
Yeasayer’s second album sounds like a swerve, its art-soul melodies and dance beats far away from the hazy Afro-delia of 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals. Remember, though, that Cymbals’ main lyrical trope was apocalypse. Odd Blood just does a hookier job of disguising its darkness. Lyrics about obsession and confusion slip from sumptuous, synthetic productions reminiscent of So-era Peter Gabriel on an ayahuasca bender. For this Brooklyn trio, slicking up was the opposite of dumbing down. D. MARCHESE
You’d have to be a fool to miss the joke this time. Opening the follow-up to their much-debated debut with the so-fussy, post-provincial kiss-off “Horchata,” Vampire Weekend dare naysayers to call them on their culture-grabbing mien. But then Contra becomes something larger — a vision of post-college confusion, a hazy trip out West, a blast of energy, an elegantly phrased postcard from Nicaragua, Jamaica, Mexico, California. Is their flouty brand of indie rock pan-global? Sure, who cares? More important, it’s pan-emotional. S.F.
BODY TALK PT. 1
Swedish dynamo Robyn is a pop-chart veteran with the ’90s CD singles to prove it. But none of her previous work prepared us for the rebooted, hard-edged swagger of Body Talk Pt. 1, the first installment of her savvy dance-floor trilogy. While opener “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” weeded out prudish former fans (although who can’t relate to “My e-mail is killing me”?), it was “Dancing on My Own” that struck an international chord — rousing, lovelorn wisdom from a club kid who’s sneeringly come into her own. S.A.
MAN ON THE MOON II: THE LEGEND OF MR. RAGER
The terrifying things in Scott Mescudi’s life are what make him important. After a pretension-wracked debut, Cudi got zooted all over Hollywood and fame’s grip tightened around his throat. Rather than flame out, he firms up, detailing his narcotized nights and depressive days. Rager could be a rap-informed revision of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night — all gorgeous, helpless headspace and Cudi’s hypnotic gift for warbling melody. But unlike his peer Drake, Cudi’s voice is more wail than coo. S.F.
M.I.A.’s 2010 has been a quixotic trial. The charges, stoked by a petulant press: loose-cannon politics and less festive beats. Guilty! Unlike her first two LPs, MAYA is no mischievous fluorescent scrapbook of the global party-starting diaspora. Conceived while homebound with her infant son, its infectious, jittery electro drifts in unnerving directions (digital surveillance lurks at every turn). Yet it’s also a bewitching mix of punkier screeds and poppier plaints. “I give a damn!” she chants on “Meds and Feds.” Sometimes that’s the worst crime. C.A.
To hear Nick Cave tell it, these songs are bursts of basement improvisation meant as a panacea for the relatively labored songs he constructs with the Bad Seeds (most members of which are in this band anyway). If so, then Grinderman’s second album is an argument for not laboring over anything ever. Unleashing one gutbucket squall after another, Cave is at his Mephistophelean best, all snarl and dick jokes, save for the regal “Palaces of Montezuma,” which posits Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen as the romantic ideal. S.K.
Posing as a cyborg while exhibiting superhuman skills in lyrical metaphor and cross-genre mutation, Atlanta’s latest R&B rebel goes black to the future on a sci-fi concept album about otherness where robots are slaves, the coldest war is the battle you wage within, tightropes of oppression are for dancing on, and the heroine changes musical identities so freely that she transcends any tag. “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,” MonÃ¡e cries, and then proceeds to fight to save her soul and soul music itself. B.W.
THE GUITAR SONG
Johnson’s double-album opus isn’t one of the past decade’s best country records because he’s a boundary-pushing subversive. It’s because his haunting baritone artfully inhabits every cranny of Nashville’s sylvan McMansion of the Mind. He essays a jaunty tune about whoring himself on a reality show, croons a plea to his daughter, sneers a class-conscious threat, even alludes to God’s despairing tears — and that’s just disc one. Johnson’s beard may be unruly, but his music is all shrewd sophistication. C.A.
THIS IS HAPPENING
Since LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 debut album, James Murphy has obsessively redefined and critiqued the cutting edges of dance music and rock. LCD’s third (and supposedly farewell) album may be Murphy’s most ambitiously impressive, subjecting his own relationship woes to heartfelt, self-lacerating scrutiny. “Pow Pow” bubbles hysterical-â€¨ly, full of gossipy kiss-offs and near-Beat ramblings, while “Dance Yrself Clean” is the unlikeliest of openers, a rapidly knotting nine-minute blast of spare percussion and braying neuroses. S.A.
After meditations on mortality (2004′s Funeral) and religion (2007′s Neon Bible), an album that addresses subjects as relatable as suburban sprawl and the obsolescence of handwritten letters should afford Win Butler and friends a chance to scale things back. But Arcade Fire don’t do scaled-back. The fiercely nostalgic subject matter pushes Butler deeper into his record collection, and he creates his most cohesive album yet; the raw and frantic “Month of May” reminds us that the most important room in any cul-de-sac split-level is the garage. S.K.
Deerhunter long for an alternative-rock utopia — where record-collector geeks transform skewed underground sounds into a melodic group hug for the shit-upon. A fleeting vision, at best, over the decades, but Halcyon Digest’s mournful rapture radiates like the beacon the Atlanta band always imagined. Frontman Bradford Cox stage-manages the action deftly — from glitchy coos to Everlys elegy to Velvets drone to folkgaze sÃ©ance — but the album’s expansive warmth is the sound of a band finally becoming their dream. C.A.
MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY
“Now, this would be a beautiful death.”
That’s how Kanye West portrays his triumphal moment on “Power,” the most exhilarating, witty, and necessarily bombastic track of his career — and the turning point of his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He ascends the throne of not just music, but the entire cultural realm, his narcissism riding surly shotgun as he relishes the riches, veneration, and, yeah, the “light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands” afforded by such a position — call it the Michael Jackson Memorial Chair of Pop Primacy. But no matter how stupendous the feeling (and if you’ve cranked the song’s hurtling tribal refrain, you know), eventually the clout he craves feels like an abuse of power. And the chain around his neck becomes heavy as Horus.
Fantasy — a ballsy, self-aware admonition that luxuriates in its grandiose reveal as an Assholes Anonymous orgy that gets nowhere close to serenity — is 2010′s album of the year because Kanye dramatizes all of the above and more with a budget-averse musical imagination that’s ominous, symphonic, heartsick, riff-ravaged, and driven by the most technically legit rapping he’s ever managed. Challenging the “I’m just doing me” cop-out parroted by so many artists, the producer/MC deals in multitudes, feeding off countless collaborators, and making a case for the album-as-art form with a vivid theme and narrative arc (not to mention faux-classical interludes, codas, etc.).
After the street-sweeper blast of “Power,” Fantasy descends into synth-swelling hedon-ism on “All of the Lights” (a Concerto for Velvet Rope with intricately deranged drum programming that peppers 11 “featured” guests) and the elaborate grotesques of “Monster” (most notably, Nicki Minaj’s brilliantly batshit vocalese on her already historic cameo). Amid the lavish, soul-drenched bitterness of “Devil in a New Dress,” Kanye collapses into decadent free fall, crying out, “You love me for me? Could you be more phony?”
Of course, this is Greek Tragedy 101 — if Aeschylus wanted to show Xerxes’ hubris today, he’d have him cackle, “I lost 30 mil, so I spent another 30 / ‘Cause unlike Hammer, 30 million can’t hurt me,” like Kanye’s cagily self-interested mentor Jay-Z on “So Appalled.” This story of a tragic, overreaching fall from grace will remain in our pop culture’s DNA (see 2010 albums by Yeezy wingman Kid Cudi and MGMT) as long as we worship abstracted, individual success above all, and cling to the idea that a big score is our birthright. It’s a mass delusion that demands a “21st Century Schizoid Man” sample (see “Power”).
Still, Kanye being Kanye aches for a hip-hop Thriller — pop art that dances in the world’s bloodstream. Yet the societal and business factors that enabled such a phenomenal beast no longer exist, so he has to create his own rarefied sphere. And “Runaway,” a disorienting, nine-minute set piece scored for MPC drum machine (enhanced by a breathtakingly choreographed 34-minute film — watch it below) does just that. Foregrounding the frisson that occurs when popular and fine art, street and formal language, poor and rich, black and white, trade places — basically hip-hop’s evolutionary hustle — he conjures his own Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner tableau that opposes icy elegance and crass hilarity (i.e., his lampshade “toast to the douchebags”). Trapped between the two, he warbles with douche-chill honesty: “I’m so gifted at findin’ what I don’t like the most.”
In his 1989 essay “The New Black Aesthetic,” novelist Trey Ellis championed a generation of young African American artists and intellectuals who looked past Africa and jazz and the Civil Rights movement for inspiration, crossing race and class lines, fired by alienation from both protective elders and shady gatekeepers. Hip-hop was more essential to Ellis’ formulation than he realized; that generation ransacked the whole landscape. Now Kanye is trippin’ on the aftermath, reconciling the dreams, the nightmares, the porn stars.
“Lost in the World,” based on Bon Iver’s “Woods,” is the album’s final song — an Auto-Tuned choir of bewildered voices, with a lovesick West struggling to resist self-pity (unlike on his previous album, 808s & Heartbreak). The concluding sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 screed “Comment #1″ lashes us, asking, “Who will survive in America?” No answer is forthcoming. But, as this album signifies, the art lies in still asking the question. CHARLES AARON