2010 was an interesting year for music. While 2009 saw many of my favorite artists release horrible albums, 2010 was full of excellent posthumous releases, cover albums, and downright suprises. From rap to country, indie to folk, classic psychedlic rock to pop-punk, 2010 was one of the most diverse years for music quality in recent memory. And while it wasn't littered with perfect albums, it took me a long time to select the albums for this list, and like every top ten list, there were some excellent albums I had to leave off. So without further ado, let's get on with it, shall we?
10. Magnetic Fields - Realism
Magnetic Fields - You Must Be Out Of Your Mind
“You want what you turned off turned on/You call it sunset, now it’s dawn/You can’t go ‘round saying stuff because it’s pretty/And I no longer drink enough to think you’re witty.” sings Stephen Merritt, chief songwriter of Magnetic Fields. It’s genius moments like these that permeate and define Realism, a wonderful little slab of indie-folk.
As usual Merritt’s vocals and instrumentals are heavily distorted but the lyrics are easy to decipher. Realism is a breath of fresh air for both folk and indie rock. The distortion compliments the folk aspects and keeps them feeling modern, while the folk helps keep the indie grounded enough in common sense that it avoids typical pratfalls.
You might recognize Merritt from his 1999 magnum opus 69 Love Songs. A massive three disc concept album about love songs. Realism also sticks to songs about relationships and love. What keeps Realism from getting repetitive and stale is the way Merritt approaches love from different angles. “You Must Be Out Of Your Mind” is about a guy who refuses to get back with an old flame who still has feelings for him, while “Seduced and Abandoned” is about exactly what it says on the title. None of these songs are personal though, instead they each encapsulate their own “reality”, hence the album title.
None of the songs on Realism are throwaway, and although Merritt’s style of writing fictional love songs instead of personal ones occasionally comes off as cold and distant, their tight composition and brilliant wit will win you over. Realism is the best kind of indie, conceptual, intelligent, but without pretension or ego. It’s a record you’ll feel cool showing to your friends, burning on a mix-tape for a loved one, or listening to alone. Stephen Merritt once again proves why he’s the king of love songs.
My Dinosaur Life is a major stylistic change for Motion City Soundtrack. Their early EPs and first LP I Am The Movie are pop tinged punk. On sophomore LP Commit This To Memory, Motion City Soundtrack perfected their unique blend of punk, pop, and Moog riffing, while 2007s Even If It Kills Me was a pure pop record.
My Dinosaur Life shows the band moving towards a more guitar heavy, pop-rock sound. It works really well on “Skin and Bones” and lead single “Her Words Destroyed My Planet”, a moving account of Pierre’s life after a break up that manages to avoid being whiny or self-loathing. Motion City has always had a knack for down to earth, empathetic lyrics, and My Dinosaur Life is no exception.
Moog synth player Jesse James is barely audible on most of My Dinosaur Life. It’s a stylistic change you either love or hate. I thought the loud, in your face Moog riffs was the best part of Motion City Soundtrack. Sometimes the guitar heavy sound works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Regardless, My Dinosaur Life is still a great record. “Skin and Bones” “Her Words Destroyed My Planet” “A Lifeless Ordinary” and “Disappear” will stay stuck in your head for weeks. With Weezer no longer writing good music, it’s comforting to know there are still bands around to continue the tradition Blue Album started.
8. The National - High Violet
The National’s debut self-titled LP, follow up Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, and 2005's Alligator all received lots of critical acclaim but little commercial success. It wasn’t until 2007s Boxer that The National made it big, with lead single “Fake Empire” featured on three TV shows, Obama’s presidency campaign, and two late night talk show performances.
The National excel at writing mature indie rock about middle class life and High Violet is no exception. On “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” Matt Berninger sings “I still owe money/To the money/To the money I owe”, fearlessly confronting the central conflict of all middle class lives: debt. Although Berninger contradicts himself a little on “Lemonworld”, a song about upper-class guilt over warfare. Strangely, High Violet’s pseudo trust-fund social anxiety complex is easy to identify with even if you’re poor. Berninger may live in high rise NYC apartments, but his music is universally American.
High Violet does have a few missteps. The strings on “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” feel cliche and melodramatic, while “Sorrow” feels more cerebral than emotional. Regardless, these slight flaws are easily polished over and don’t detract much. High Violet is the best National album to date, an impressive feat considering their widespread critical acclaim. Hopefully a trend that will continue into the future.
7. Jimi Hendrix - Valleys Of Neptune
Valleys Of Neptune is something of a wet dream for fans of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. While two of the songs are covers and most of the songs have already been available in the form of live bootleg recordings with various levels of quality, Valleys Of Neptune is superior in that the recordings are by all three of the original Experience line up in studio.
Valleys Of Neptune was recorded in late 1968 and throughout 1969 with the exception of the title track, which was recorded in 1970. What’s so surprising about this album is how quickly they’ve matured since 1968s Electric Ladyland.
For example, take the second single, their cover of Etta James “Bleeding Heart”. The song opens with that instantly recognizable funky blues-rock riffing Hendrix is known for and continues for a minute and forty seconds where we reach the first solo. For those of you that don’t know, Hendrix is considered the greatest guitarist who ever lived for good reason. His solos are both melodic and impossible to play for even a great guitarist with thousands of hours of practice under his belt. However, Bleeding Heart’s first solo shows maturity in that it’s complex without being impossibly virtuosic. Hendrix is only hinting at his incredible guitar skills. The first solo continuities until 2:30 where Hendrix launches into the second verse before hitting the second solo at 3:40. For twenty seconds the second solo exists on the fringe of human playability before Hendrix begins flashing his virtuosity, playing both impossibly fast while still remaining melodic. Unlike most modern shred-guitarists, Hendrix’s solos never sound like scales. It’s been forty years since Hendrix’s tragically early death, but with Valleys Of Neptune Hendrix once again proves to the world why he’ll forever be the king of electric rock guitar.
6. The Black Keys - Brothers
The Black Keys sound is defined by simple, catchy, blues-rock riffs and basic yet technical drumming. Between 2002 and 2008 The Black Keys released five albums and four EPs. The only difference between the nine recordings is the production quality, otherwise their signiture sound, instrumentation, and line-up remains uncharged.
While Brothers doesn’t stray too far from their basic stripped down blues-rock formula, it does contain a little experimentation. On “Everlasting Light” Auerbach sings falsetto instead of his usual tenor growl. While “Too Afraid To Love You” utilizes a haunting harpsichord riff.
The majority of Brothers is standard Black Keys fare. Standout tracks include “Next Girl”, “Black Mud”, and “Howlin’ For You”. However, the best track is their cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”.
Most albums that run over twelve tracks suffer from either filler or skip-worthy songs. What makes Brothers so great is that it contains neither of these, yet it doesn’t drag on forever, running only an hour long. Brothers is the best Black Keys album to date, and despite what the haters may say, rock n’ roll isn’t dead yet.
5. Tim Kasher - The Game of Monogamy
Tim Kasher’s first solo album The Game Of Monogamy is a brutal deconstruction of romantic relationships, particularly marriage. The Game of Monogamy is surprising in that it doesn’t sound like a Cursive or Good Life record. Instead, Kasher draws stylistic elements from both to create a sound uniquely his own. “No Fireworks” and album closer “Monogamy” clearly draws from the epic orchestral sounds of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ. While “A Grown Man” and “Bad, Bad Dreams” are reminiscent of The Good Life’s minimalist indie styling.
Nowhere is The Game Of Monogamy’s uniqueness more apparent than lead single “Cold Love”. It’s easily the peppiest thing Kasher’s ever written. With a Kinks-esque guitar riff, it’s subtly embellished with horns, strings, synth noodling, and female backup vocals. The music video is absolutely brilliant. Featuring a couple attempting to sabotage each other but ultimately falling victim to their own traps.
While The Game Of Monogamy doesn’t stand equal with Album of the Year or The Ugly Organ, it’s an incredibly solid record that reminds us all that sometimes being in a relationship is more lonely than being alone.
4. The Extra Lens - Undercard
Casual fans of The Mountain Goats might call Undercard yet another Mountain Goats album, but careful listeners and longtime fans will instantly recognize what Franklin Bruno of Nothing Painted Blue is bringing to this partnership. Undercard sounds like the spiritual successor to the 2008 Mountain Goat LP Heretic Pride, but it’s far to orchestral and lush to ever be labeled a Mountain Goat album. 10 out of the 17 Mountain Goat LPs were recorded on an old boom box, and even when John Darnellie finally made the switch to recording in the studio he never really took advantage of it. Instead the studio merely acted like a really expensive boom box, with songs occasionally throwing in minimalist amounts of other instruments, but usually Darnellie stuck to the tried and true tradition of painting pictures with nothing but his acoustic guitar, voice, and words.
Undercard might be lush and orchestral by Mountain Goat standards but overall it’s a fairly minimalistic LP. Darnellie’s lyrics are clearer than they’ve ever been before, and Bruno subtly highlights them with instrumentation and studio effects much like an expert film score composer.
Listening to Undercard isn’t so much an aural experience as it is a visual one. Darnellie’s lyrics take you on a journey the way a skilled author makes you forget you’re sitting in a chair reading a book. “Communicating Doors” tells the story of a struggling couple checking into two separate hotel rooms that share a door, only to have drunken sex later in the night. “Only Existing Footage” tells the difficulty and stress involved shooting an indie film. “How I Left The Ministry” tells the story of an adulterous couple that get into a fatal car crash after returning from a sexual liaison they shared in a seedy motel.
The highlight of the album is the second track “Crusierweights” which tells the story of an amateur boxer back in the 80s. He hates being a boxer as evidenced by the lines “And there’s a whole long list of other things I hate/I had to starve myself all week to make weight”. He only boxes because it’s the best way for a convicted felon like him to make money. The song doesn’t so much pull your heartstrings as it neutrally tells the story. None of Darnellie’s stories have heroes or villains, just characters and conflicts.
Listening to Undercard is both a relaxing and an emotional experience. It’s an album that will stay with you long after you put it down. Overall, Undercard is an album about persevering in the face of failure. A lesson that our instant self-gratification obsessed culture would be well advised to learn.
3. Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain’t No Grave
In 1994 Johnny Cash released his Grammy award winning album American Recordings. Part original music and part cover songs, it was so successful in 1996 Johnny Cash released his second album in the American series, Unchained. American VI: Ain’t No Grave is the sixth and final entry in the American Recording series, and even though Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, even from beyond the grave this posthumous release is just as powerful as if he were still with us today.
Ain’t No Grave contains one Johnny Cash original, one traditional tune, and eight cover songs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you weren’t already aware, Johnny Cash has a knack for writing great cover songs. Despite his already amazing collection of original tunes, his covers are otherworldly, and American VI is no exception.
The highlight of the cover songs is Johnny’s interpretation of Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day”. Employing his acoustic guitar, a grand piano, subtle synth touches, and his rich baritone voice Johnny turns the Sheryl Crow classic into a moving piece about morality and life after death.
But despite all the excellent covers the highlight of Ain’t No Grave and my song of the year is the one original song, "1 Corinthians 15:55". Regardless of your religious beliefs this song will move you to tears. Cash sings the Bible verses to music without any of the pretension and contempt you find is most religious music. Johnny isn’t so much preaching as he’s giving heed. You can hear the pleading in his voice when he sings “O death, where is thy sting?”. Johnny knows full well the sting of death and you can hear the fear and humbleness in every note he plucks. He isn’t so much singing to us as he’s begging God for mercy. The fact that this is a posthumous release only adds a new layer of depth to an already brilliant song. I don’t believe in God, but if he exists, I’m 100% positive Cash is with him. May he rest in peace.
2. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
For the first time in twelve years, the cartoon personas of Gorillaz are no more. Instead Damon Albarn describes it as “...more like an organisation of people doing new projects.” I can’t think of a better word to describe the Plastic Beach ensemble better than “organisation”. Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, Mos Def, De La Soul, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Mick Jones, The Syrian National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, and many more are featured.
There’s a weak theme of saving the environment that runs through Plastic Beach. However the centerpiece here is the music. Plastic Beach isn’t so much hip-hop as it is a mash up of funk, dubstep, and electronic baroque pop. Even tracks that sound like they should be hip-hop on paper, like “Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach (ft. Snoop Dog)” feel more like psychedelic electronica despite Snoop Dog rapping throughout. The raps feel more like another rhythm instrument than the melodic focus.
This isn’t a bad thing though. Plastic Beach’s genre-defying weirdness is what makes it so good. This is an album you can listen to stoned with friends, speeding down the highway, dancing in a club, or right before bed. Depending on your needs it can be relaxing or energetic. The songs almost shift with your focus, leading you to discover new things every subsequent listen. Plastic Beach is an album unlike any other, but when it’s this good, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
1. John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up!
When asked about the criteria for the cover songs chosen on Wake Up! Questlove said “I wanted to choose cover songs that were so under the radar, so uniquely interpreted, that it would take you a second to realise that these are cover songs.” Wake Up! manages to do just that.
There are some superstar musicians being covered here. Nina Simone, Bill Withers, and Marvin Gaye to name a few. However the songs they pick are obscure and unknown, and The Roots and John Legend give the songs such unique interpretations that they might as well be original material. Each song is a combination of funk, rhythm and blues, gangster rap, reggae, soul, and pop. Many of the songs push well beyond five minutes, but you’ll enjoy yourself so much they’ll feel like three.
Every musician is a virtuoso on Wake Up! but there are no face melting solos to be found here. Instead, each instrument sacrifices itself as a part of a greater whole. John Legend’s vocals do get expressive but he never shows off. The songs morph from genre to genre seamlessly. The highlight of every song has to be Black Thought. His raps put everyone else I’ve ever heard to shame. His lyrics dazzle with their intelligence, truth, and wit. His flow is so good he makes it sound easy. His hard hitting words contrast amazingly well with John Legend’s velvety tenor croon. There isn’t a a weak track to be found on Wake Up!. It’s an amazing return to form that proves The Roots are not only the best hip hop group making music today, but the best rhythm n’ blues, reggae, funk, and soul group too.