Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Favorite Albums of 2010

I love music. I loved a lot of music in 2010. I decided to rank the music and write about it. If you take the time to read this, congratulations! You must be a music nerd like me! Without further ado, my favorite albums of 2010:

(click on album titles for links to preview and download albums from Amazon)

Saint Bartlett [ Digital Booklet]15. Damien Jurado “Saint Bartlett”

Damien Jurado is a remarkably consistent songwriter, which led me to take this one for granted a bit. I didn’t dig deep enough into these songs to rank it confidently, but, as always, it’s a beautiful collection of songs. Love the vocal echoes on opener “Cloudy Shoes.”

Messenger14. Joe Pug “Messenger”

After 2008’s outstanding “Nation of Heat EP,” I had very high hopes for this debut LP. Pug’s songwriting is just as strong as on “Heat,” especially on heart-wrenching tracks like “Bury Me (Close to My Uniform),” but there’s something about the full band sound on this album that’s a bit too polished for my taste. Pug’s songs just feel like they need a bit more edge. I’m excited to hear whatever he comes up with next.

Volume 213. She & Him “Volume 2”

The orchestration is lush. The songs are gorgeous. I love this album. “Volume 1” was a minimalist pop masterpiece, and this is an apt follow-up. M. Ward’s jack-of-all-trades musicianship and Zooey Deschanel’s crystal clear voice and impeccable ear for melody make for a wonderful, albeit grammatically incorrect, musical pair.

You Are Not Alone12. Mavis Staples “You Are Not Alone”

I own Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose” because it was produced by Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather). I own Mavis Staples’ “You Are Not Alone” because it was produced by Jeff Tweedy (Wilco). In both cases, it’s a good match. There are some great gospel tracks, a couple Tweedy originals (including the excellent title track). My favorite is the the anthemic track, “Wrote a Song for Everyone.”

American VI_ Ain't No Grave11. Johnny Cash “American VI: Ain’t No Grave”

Johnny Cash’s late-career producer, collaborator and career-reviver Rick Rubin can’t let Johnny Cash go, which means we keep getting to hear more of the wonderful recordings the legendary man left behind. When Johnny Cash sings “there ain’t no grave can hold my body down,” I believe him. Some of these songs could bring someone to tears. But not me, of course. I was just chopping onions.

Lisbon10. The Walkmen “Lisbon”

The Walkmen have been around for a while now (this is their 6th LP), but this is the first of theirs that I’ve really listened to. I heard “Stranded” on NPR’s All Songs Considered, and fell in love. “Stranded” remains the standout track on the album (I’m a sucker for a good horn section), but this is a solid album, beginning to end. The vocals are impassioned, the percussion inventive, the guitar work pristine. Walk on, Walkmen. Yeah, I just said that, and it was hilarious.

Write About Love (Amazon MP3 Exclusive)9. Belle & Sebastian “Write About Love”

Speaking of bands who have been around for awhile, Belle & Sebastian have been making “wistful pop” since the days when I was exclusively listening to Christian punk rock and ska music (i.e. the mid-late 90’s). I’ve grown to appreciate B&S over the past five years or so, but I am by no means a devout fan, though I may well be on my way to becoming one. With their 8th LP, B&S make it sound easy, something that’s far from easy to do. Great sing-along tunes.

The ArchAndroid8. Janelle Monae “The ArchAndroid”

Concept album. Check. Ambitious album. Check. I don’t normally love R&B/Hip-hop, but I really love this album. A stark contrast to many of her contemporaries in the pop world, Janelle Monae evokes the classic vibe of James Brown and Marvin Gaye. Her lyrics are science fiction, inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film “Metropolis.” Monae takes on the character of Cindi Mayweather, something of an android messiah, to explore issues of class prejudice and “other-ness.” I may well like this more and more as I continue to listen to it. Also, the tracks “Cold War” and “Tightrope” are SO the jams.

High Violet7. The National “High Violet”

Nearly every male vocalist I listen to is a tenor, but not Matt Berninger. This is the first thing that strikes you when you listen to the National. The deep voice up front contributes to their dark, brooding aesthetic. The percussion on this album is exceptional (e.g. “Terrible Love,” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”). The line “I was afraid I’d eat your brains” (from “Conversation 16”) makes me laugh audibly every time. I’m not sure if I should be laughing, and that’s precisely why this music is so good. These guys are masters of tension, and I gladly live in it with them.

So Runs the World Away6. Josh Ritter “So Runs the World Away”

I can’t think of anybody who can top Josh Ritter as a lyricist right now. For example, in the nautically-themed epic “Another New World,” the wordplay “'Til at last all around us was fastness, one vast glassy desert of arsenic white.” Is he just showing off? Even if he is, I embrace it wholeheartedly. If I were the arguing type, I might argue that Josh Ritter is our generation’s Paul Simon. I only hope Ritter’s career continues as long as Simon’s. Another highlight: “The Curse” is about an archaeologist who falls in love with a revived mummy and then trades places with him. You gotta hear it.

The Wild Hunt [ digital booklet]5. The Tallest Man on Earth “The Wild Hunt”

Kristian Matsson is a bit of an enigma. I know that he’s from Sweden, he’s not tall, his voice projects as though he’s swallowed an amplifier, and he continues to write and record brilliant songs. I fell in love with his debut LP “Shallow Grave” in 2008, and this new collection is, for the most part, cut from the same cloth. Aside from the more spacious piano-based closer “Kids on the Run,” these are densely crafted folk masterpieces, meticulously picked on guitar and banjo, leaving much to be unpacked even after numerous listens. These songs keep on giving, and I thank The Tallest Man on Earth for each one of them.

Sigh No More4. Mumford & Sons “Sigh No More”

People kept telling me to get this album, that I’d love it. I kept putting it off. I got the album. They were right. I thanked them. From the opening line of the album “Serve God, love me and mend” (from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) to the closing line “Get over your hill and see what you find there, with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair,” it is clear that themes of God, grace and forgiveness are at the heart of this album. They sing and play with intense passion, and they use dynamic shifts to great effect. They’re the only band I’ve heard play a banjo as violently as Scott Avett, and they put together an incredible debut album full of life and catharsis.

Go3. Jonsi “Go”

Icelandic band Sigur Ros has built up a ravenously devoted fan base, and the debut (English language!) solo album from singer Jón Þór Birgisson was (and is) exciting. The best way to describe this album is with one of Jonsi’s lines, from the track “Animal Arithmetic,” “every time, everyone, everything’s full of life!” This album is brimming with life. The percussion is at times so energetic and Jonsi’s voice so pure that I feel like I need to jump out of my body to enjoy it properly. Jonsi has a knack for transcendent music. His voice is a treasure, and his songs a gift.

The Suburbs2. Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”

I was really excited about this album’s release. I preordered the vinyl as soon as humanly possible, and took notes (notes I say!) during my first listen through. Arcade Fire has released three albums, and I don’t think they could be any better. “Funeral” was bombastic, refreshingly honest, full of relatable human suffering and vivid imagery. “Neon Bible” was full of critique of church, politics and pop culture, drenched in pipe organ and lyrics that speak directly to my heart. “The Suburbs” is just a fantastic rock n’ roll album. It reminds me of Springsteen (“Modern Man”), The Mamas and the Papas (“City With No Children”), and, y’know, disco (“Sprawl II”).

Lyrically, Butler is spot on as usual, with suburban gems like “Pray to God I don’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild” (from “Half Light II”). Arcade Fire’s music works, I think, because the band cares deeply about what they sing about. They do not write off the suburbs as a faceless mass of people who have forsaken the open spaces and urban centers of our nation, but look at suburban life autobiographically, noting the good and the bad therein. It’s oddly compelling subject matter, executed masterfully by a great band.

The Age Of Adz1. Sufjan Stevens “The Age of Adz”

I was giddy with excitement on the day that (surprise!) Sufjan released a 58 minute EP (“All Delighted People”) with no forewarning whatsoever. It was just there, new Sufjan music. Sneak attack. And it was awesome. Not long after, there came news of a forthcoming LP. It came with a fair amount of explanation, summed up by: different/electronic/concept/outsider artist Royal Robertson/different. Also, different. Many were worried how it could live up to “Illinois,” his 2005 masterpiece. I was more worried that it could compare to the amazing EP he had just released! I preordered Adz on vinyl, and was giddy to listen to it. “Futile Devices” came over the speakers, and I was confused. This wasn’t very different. But then came the opening “brown noise” of “Too Much.” A bit dancy, a repeating chorus, minimal lyrics. I’m starting to get into the groove, and when the chilling horns of “The Age of Adz” enter at track 3, I’m hooked. I can’t say I “got it” immediately, but I knew I liked this.

Then I went with my good friend Jon Mickelson to see Sufjan in concert. This was the moment it all came together. Sufjan was having fun. He was dancing. His choreography was cheesy, but authentic. It was like he was experiencing the sort of joy I experience when I dance with my little kids in the living room after a long day at work. This is not to say that these songs are simplistic. They are as intricate as can be. I saw a 10 piece band (with 2 drummers, facing one another from opposite sides of the stage, playing mostly in unison throughout the show) bring these songs to life. And in the middle was Sufjan, perhaps my favorite artist, being brought to life again, after a five year semi-hiatus.

And I came back to the album. If you’ve listened to it less than ten times, you haven’t listened enough. It keeps giving, coming to life more and more with each listen. The profane moment on “I Want to Be Well” becomes a prayer, a cry, a plea to God, to doctors, to anyone who can help, to bring relief to an aching body/soul/mind, and now! You realize what an achievement “Impossible Soul” really is. Seriously, it’s over 25 minutes long, and you come to realize, as Sufjan said , introducing the piece at the concert, “everything that has happened so far has been leading up to this moment.” It’s a remarkably self-aware idea, that one is an “Impossible Soul,” and it requires 5 episodes to explore that idea fully.

After years of frustration with the idea of songwriting, Sufjan found inspiration amid great suffering and in an affinity with outsider artist Royal Robertson. I probably like Sufjan Stevens a bit too much, but what can I say? I think I’ve said it already.

Coming soon: My favorite EP’s and Songs from 2010

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At 9:30 PM EST , Anonymous Randy "Pope" Hofbauer said...

Some very good choices here, though She & Him has gone from being serious music to more of a novelty for me (still very good, though!) Heard the latest from The Innocence Mission? Each record they release should end up on a Top 10 list of that year's best albums.

At 11:18 AM EST , Blogger Andrew Gates said...

Thanks, Pope. And I always take your suggestions seriously. I remember when you chastised me for my omission of "Animal Years" on my '06 list, and you were SOOOOOOOO right.


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