2010: A New Decade

by Sean McCarthy

When I came up with my list of "best albums of the decade" last year, I was surprised at the number of albums that came out in 2000. The biggest cause for surprise was that in 2000, I didn't remember the year being all that noteworthy with the exception of Outkast's Stankonia and Radiohead's Kid A. It just goes to show you how much the element of time plays in these "best of" lists.

Nine years from now, I'm not projecting the same phenomenon. Looking at my Top 10, I'm seeing nearly eight albums that would be my number one or number two choice during any other year. If there was a unifying theme that most of the best albums of this year shared, it was ambition. There was Kanye West's six-minute song stretches in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an R&B newcomer whose first album does nothing less than structure a concept album using time travel and the film Metropolis as inspiration, or an indie artist whose voice is a hurdle for even the most open-minded of listeners releasing a TRIPLE CD, with each CD surpassing the length of some full-length albums. Album sales may have dropped again this year, but thankfully, quality was not lacking.

 
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10.  Sharon Jones And The Dap Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
If soul music shares a commonality with heavy metal, it would be that both genres just seem to sound better when the volume is cranked. Listening to I Learned The Hard Way at a low level is a polite and almost pedestrian experience. But on high, you feel each key horn blast, each percussion hit, which only makes Sharon Jones’ vocals hit that much harder. 
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9.  The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

I'm still not entirely sold on The Suburbs. After a solid beginning, I still can't remember the melodies of songs like "Deep Blue," "Empty Room," and "Half Light I" and "Half Light II (No Celebration)." And the less said about "Rococo" the better. But each listen to The Suburbs reveals a little more. At one point, the band is regaling stories of the friendships that only the 'burbs can provide. And at other points, the band wants to take a blowtorch to the entire thing. And finally, there's the "Sprawl" – a two-part anthem in which the song’s characters wonder if they can ever really escape "the sprawl," regardless of where they move – something that resonates with almost every disaffected "kid" young or old.

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8. 
Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son of Chico Dusty

It’s hard to believe that the solo artist of the most successful duo in hip-hop history would have trouble releasing a solo album. It’s even more baffling given that most fans and critics consider Big Boi to be the more straightforward hitmaker of Outkast and Andre 3000 as the left-field experimentalist. But that’s exactly what faced Big Boi on Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son of Chico Dusty. Big Boi’s album could have been a rusty mess, plagued with delays and label wrangling. Instead, it comes across as a cool, confident, unified whole. The relative lack of chart fire Sir Lucious Left Foot generated can be blamed solely on Big Boi’s label. No worries, though, like most great music, Sir Lucious Left Foot will find its audience years from now.

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7.  The Roots - How I Got Over

Complacency is one of the most lethal creativity killers for artists. And nothing's more complacent than a cushy, stable full-time job. Though the album may not have shared the indignation of Rising Down or Game Theory, How I Got Over excels at showing how incredible The Roots are as a live band and how Black Thought continues to grow as a lyricist even as his band enters its third decade on the charts. Any other album would have buckled under the weight of a guest list like Joanna Newsom, Monsters Of Folk, John Legend, and P.O.R.N., but on How I Got Over, these artists just enhance the quality of the source product.
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6.  Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

Astro Coast was released in 2010's infancy. And while more innovative and expansive albums have come out this year, any time Astro Coast wound up back on my turntable, I was amazed at how effortlessly the songs blew me away. "Swim" sounds like it could rupture your speakers with the volume on two. A clean, crisp debut album by a band who just got signed to the majors on the basis of their songs, Astro Coast practically defies you not to hit play once the closing chords of "Catholic Pagans" leave your ears.

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5.  Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

The best way to describe the listening experience of Halcyon Digest is to compare it to exploring a forest or a park. The exterior may be underwhelming, but it's necessary in comprising the whole. "Earthquake" and "Don't Cry" are quiet, delicate numbers that do not bowl you over. But the further into Halcyon Digest you dig, the richer the rewards, especially with the shimmering "Basement Scene," spacey "Helicopter," and the rocking "Fountain Stairs." The seven minute closer "He Would Have Laughed," a sonic collage of keyboards, guitars, and sparse percussion, is a moving tribute to Jay Reatard. "Where did my friends go?" Bradford Cox laments in that track. We may never know the answer, but Halcyon Digest shows that the act of asking such questions is a reward onto itself.   

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4.  Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do

About 25 years ago, John Mellencamp released Scarecrow, an album that was rural America’s response to getting left behind in the economic boom of the go-go ‘80s. This year, we have Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley to thank for creating the definitive rock statement to The Great Recession. Murder ballads, straight-up bar rockers, and shuffling ‘70s-era boogie are the tools the Truckers use to create vivid character sketches of people working fast food wages, numbing themselves with alcohol, and cavorting with lap dancers to just get by in the new economy.

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3. 
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

"You've been putting up wit' my shit just way too long," Kanye sings on "Runaway." He’s not kidding. After last year, the general public, all the way up to the President, just wished Kanye would go away. Fickle fans that loved Kanye for his music but couldn't stand his personality most likely celebrated at the relatively weak chart performance of 808s & Heartbreaks. After the public firestorm that Kanye created, most rational artists would have come back with a cautionary "test the waters" type album to gauge people's reactions. Thankfully, Kanye's wired just the opposite. West sought out an A-list roster, spent millions on production, and pushed several songs past the six-minute mark. Each song stands as its own epic, but at the same time, the album demands “beginning to end” listening. When the stakes couldn’t be higher, West responded by creating a hip-hop masterpiece.

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2.  Beach House - Teen Dream

If you were going to give “album of the year” honors to an album based solely on the strength of its singles, Teen Dream would be sitting atop any other album released this year. “Silver” and “Norway” are back-to-back pop symphonies, wrapping listeners in a warm blanket of pop bliss. The album ends with the immensely affecting “Take Care,” a song about the most unselfish kind of devotion. Beach House’s name may conjure images of the worst elements of indie culture, but on Teen Dream, they transcend the trappings of that genre. This is great pop. Pure and simple.

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1.  Janelle Monae -
The Archandroid

It appears Janelle Monae knows nothing about the record industry. The Archandroid, which features suites, a “WTF” concept album set 700 years in the future, and involves androids and time travel, is the type of album that artists should have the freedom to make after you’ve made it big and amassed some label and audience goodwill, not something you release right out of the gate. “Come Alive (War Of The Roses)” sounds like a burning hot ‘20s-era jazz club with the melody of “Rock Lobster” playing. “Cold War” is a feverish, pulsating raver and “Tightrope” chalks up another win for Big Boi. In a year full of ambitious releases, The Archandroid deserves to be mentioned at the top for its scope and daring, not to mention a great collection of songs. Ten years from now, I hope to be using the phrase “This is The Archandroid” when I describe 2020’s album of the year.

 

Honorable mentions: LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening and Titus Andronicus - The Monitor.

5 Singles of the Year (Plus One)

1.    "Power" – Kanye West

Years ago, I hated Deion Sanders for his cockiness and arrogance. I hated him even more on Monday mornings after watching him back up everything he boasted about on the field. “Power” is West’s equivalent of someone who you want to see fail publically boast they’re going to make the best song of the year and do just that. Opening with a tribal-like chant, sampling King Crimson, and veering between overblown ego and painful self-reflection, “Power” perfectly sums up how much Kanye West’s presence is needed in today’s fractured music world.

2.    "Fuck You" – Cee Lo

Like “Crazy,” “Fuck You” was able to bridge gaps between nerds and hipsters, housewives and art majors, Conan fans and Leno fans. Sure, the title gave people a giddy thrill, but the song itself pays off long after its shock has waned. Despite the joyful early 70s-era soul sound of “Fuck You,” it’s a pained, sarcastic kiss-off to a loved one. This is hip-hop’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

3.    "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" – The New Pornographers

Together marks the second time The New Pornographers has not achieved the same heights as their first three albums. But “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” represents one of the finest three minutes in the band’s cannon. The song starts off with a poppy piano chord, then goes into a sort of tennis match between the key players. The chorus raises “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” to the stratosphere. The rest of Together couldn’t quite match the brilliance of this song. How could it?

4.    “Silver Soul” – Beach House

A few years ago, I put on Cat Power’s The Greatest and I was a tad disoriented during the second song, “Living Proof.” The song was so complete, it seemed like it should be placed at the “peak” of an album’s track listings. Instead, it was only track two, and more peaks were on the way. With “Silver Soul,” Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally create a soundscape that sounds like an oceanic musical wave rolling in and out. “It is happening again” is the refrain that sticks in your head. “Silver Soul” should disarm even the most hardened Beach House skeptic, readying them for an album’s worth of such wonderful sonic moments.  

5.    "This Fucking Job" – Drive-By Truckers

Look at the title of my number two single and you can pretty much gauge the mood of our culture today. If The Big To-Do is the soundtrack for our Great Recession, “This Fucking Job” is the exhausted, weary song for the 99’ers out there who are unemployed or underemployed. Patterson Hood’s guitar chugs along with an angry urgency while he sings “It ain’t getting me further.” Sadly, this song will likely continue to resonate so long as the economy continues to grow without the jobs needed to make such a rally count as a recovery.

"One Life Stand" – Hot Chip

A few years ago, Hot Chip was part of an indistinguishable crop of indie electronic acts. Their album The Warning was by no means a failure, but like Iron Man 2, you’d be hard pressed to remember any details about it after a single listen. No such problem exists on their follow-up. The electronic elements are very much in the here and now, but the guitar riff could have come from Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.” As cerebral as it is fun, “One Life Stand” is a guilt-free pop gem.


Reissues of the Year

1.  David Bowie - Station to Station

David Bowie sings “No, it’s not the side effects of the cocaine” on the leadoff track to Station To Station. He could have fooled us. The album, which gave listeners the Bowie incarnation of the Thin White Duke, has been a lost favorite for many Bowie fans. This rerelease, complete with a great live concert at Nassau Coliseum, will no doubt win a whole new generation of converts. 

2.  Rolling Stones - Exile on Main St.

The songs sung by the Stones of today may slightly mar the rerelease of their 1972 classic. But any true fan of arguably the best double-album in rock will want to pick up this up, if only because their version is scratched to hell. “So Divine” and “Pass The Wine” are the highlights of the tracks that didn’t make the cut the first time around.

3.  Bob Dylan - The Witmark Demos (1962-1964)

One of the greatest marketing feats of Dylan’s “bootleg” demos is how they are able to make the purchase of almost all of his bootlegs justified for even casual Dylan fans. It started with the release of his infamous 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert, then it went to his earnest live performance before going electric, and two years ago, it was a collection of unreleased tracks from his late-career resurgence. With The Witmark Demos, listeners are taken back to the very beginning, where Dylan, stripped of his mythology and “voice of a generation” expectations, was armed only with a pen and a flood of inspiration.   

4.  Bruce Springsteen - The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story

A slight dock for confusion’s sake. Some folks may have been led to believe that buying The Promise meant Springsteen’s classic album that constituted the main source of all of this unreleased material was also included. That’s only if you get the deluxe box set edition. Still, The Promise is well worth the purchase as it shows Springsteen at his frustrated best, following up a classic album that won him millions of followers, only to have his follow-up mired in legal woes. The Promise, along with Darkness, represents that halfway point that almost any Springsteen fan, be it his anathematic Born In The USA followers, or his acoustic Nebraska lovers, can agree on.   

5.  Iggy & The Stooges - Raw Power

OK, so Raw Power is the rerelease of Iggy & The Stooges' punk classic. But it’s the rerelease of the original edition that David Bowie helped mix. If you want the remastered version that features the final mix that was approved by Iggy Pop, you’ll still have to track down the 1997 version. Got that? Oh, fuck it, just buy this version, which features a live Atlanta performance that sounds like it was recorded in a warehouse basement, complete with Iggy threatening to punch an audience member’s face in.


Disappointment Of The Year

My Chemical Romance - Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys

In my high school DECA club, our teacher taught us that if a jingle stuck in your head, it was a success, no matter how awful that jingle was. If that is the case, “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” would be seen as being every bit as successful as Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” or Kanye West’s “Power” or even Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”  Like Green Day, My Chemical Romance is coming off of a triumphant critical and commercially successful album. And like Green Day, MCR fell into the exact same trappings that sank Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown. Saddled with overglossy production and lame radio skits, Danger Days was the equivalent of a Michael Bay remake of Repo Man.   


On The Horizon: 2011

Given that it was hard enough narrowing my ‘best of’ down to 20, yet alone 10, 2011 has a lot to live up to. However, it promises to be a memorable year with something for everyone. Metal fans can hope for a new Baroness album, pop fans can count the months before the new Lady Gaga drops. For older fans, Dr. Dre plans to release his final album and The Cars have reunited and plan to release a new album. Lil Wayne has a likely lock for bestselling album of 2011 (unless Susan Boyle comes up with a Valentine’s Day-themed album) and newcomer James Blake has generated some serious buzz. As for early “album of the year” favorites, after his iconic debut and even his contribution to Kanye West’s latest, the honor is Bon Iver’s for the taking. 




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