Given that this is my first post here in over a year, I feel compelled to apologize to my dedicated readers. Hopefully all two of you found your way over to my other blog in the meantime, but rest assured that I’m back now – and that I’ve become no less snobby during my prolonged hiatus. In fact, this post – in which I’ll be sharing my thoughts on my ten favorite albums of the past year – might just be my most obnoxious yet. Let’s get into it.
#10 – Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Like I’m not going to find a spot on this list for a fellow snob; a guy who’s rapped in the past about how he shops so much he can speak Italian, and who’d probably hijack my keyboard if he could right now to complain about his place in my rankings. In the months leading up to the album’s release, as Kanye revealed himself to be kind of a boorish and insecure attention whore, I couldn’t help but think of his tongue-in-cheek celebration of a lifestyle devoid of ambition and motivation, a song called “We Don’t Care” – the first track off his first album. But in the years since, Kanye proved he actually cares a little TOO much about a lot of things, especially what we all think of him.
So now, with his latest album topping everyone’s Top Ten list, from the PBR-swilling hipsters at Pitchfork to the Phil Dunphy-ish dads at Rolling Stone, Kanye’s probably feeling better than ever. He’s cocky enough now to dismiss upcoming rappers, as he does on “Gorgeous,” with a sneered “You blowin’ up? That’s good, fantastic” – but I can’t help but push the same putdown back at Kanye. This isn’t his best album; it’s not as exuberant as The College Dropout or as tightly focused as Late Registration, and I don’t even think there are single tracks on it that showcase his immense talents as originally as “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” or even “Jesus Walks.”
But with that snobbishness out of the way, this album’s still absurdly good. It’s bookended by probably the most infectiously triumphant tracks of the year, and “Monster” is so jawdroppingly captivating that if you can’t remember where you were when you first heard it (in my case, in a car crammed with other equally transfixed grad school dudes), then you might actually be deaf. It’s intensely personal, endearingly introspective, and outrageously creative – basically, everything that an album on a list like this should be.
#9 – Sleigh Bells – Treats
Remember Pop Rocks? Those edible firecrackers that everyone loved back in middle school before coming to the collective realization that they were incredibly painful to consume? I think after receiving a poor grade on a Math test in 6th grade I was so distraught that I chased a packet of Pop Rocks with a few swigs of Coke, in what might be the most unusual suicide attempt of all time, as combining the two was rumored to have astonishing pyrotechnic effects. Thankfully, the mixture wasn’t as combustive as I’d been told, and so I lived to hear the album Treats.
I really only bring up Pop Rocks because I feel like they’re the closest analogy to this album. It’s impossible to listen to Treats, the debut album from the Brooklyn-based duo Sleigh Bells, at anything other than at top volume. Seriously, try this sometime. You can’t do any sort of multitasking with this album on; its beats are just too percussive, its hooks too catchy, and its vocals too enthusiastic. Like Pop Rocks, there’s no nutritional value here – no life-altering message or coded symbolism to unravel. There’s really not much here to distinguish one song from the next, and the lyrics are pretty much pointless. But Treats exists for the sole purpose of rocking your fucking world, and it achieved this better than any other album this year.
#8 – The Avett Brothers – Live, Vol. 3
I attended a production of A Christmas Carol with my family yesterday, and found myself identifying probably a little too closely with Ebenezer Scrooge, its irascible and cynical protagonist. It takes some serious earnestness to crack through my hardened veneer of pessimism, but the Avett Brothers, and this album in particular, make it look easy. Barely anyone I’ve met in Arizona has heard of the Avett Brothers before, confirming my suspicion that they’re one of the South’s best-kept secrets, along with the Drive-By Truckers, the game of half-rubber, and the majestic (if wildly racist) splendor of the South of the Border rest stop on I-95.
For all their songs’ sincerity and conviction, it’s pretty easy to forget about the Avett Brothers’ sheer chops as musicians. Their catalog is loaded with gutwrenching lines (like “Laundry Room”‘s killer Last night I dreamt the whole night long / Woke with a head full of songs / I spent the whole day / I wrote ’em down but it’s a shame / Tonight I’ll burn the lyrics / ‘Cause every chorus was your name) and solid instrumentation (just watch this performance of the same song).
And while it might be lame to include a live album on a list like this, the mutual adoration between these North Carolina natives and their Charlotte audience is so heartwarming, so organic, that it effectively serves as an affirmation of the very sincerity that defines their music at large. Listening to Scott Avett choke up at the conclusion to “Murder in the City,” or hearing the audience’s grateful response as the group takes the stage for an encore, is a reminder of how music can strip away all pretense and instill simple joy in even the most Scroogish of souls. God bless you, Avett Brothers, every one.
#7 – The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
I’ve made no secret of my deep-seated hatred for Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble. Their enormous commercial appeal is due almost entirely to their uncanny ability to sound like smug, soulless douchebags when they sing, which somehow makes them attractive to millions of women. The fact that they both look like Lexus salesmen doesn’t hurt them in this department, either. For these reasons, I can’t get enough of guys like Paul Westerberg, Craig Finn, and Ben Nichols (of The Replacements, The Hold Steady, and Lucero, respectively) – dudes who aren’t afraid to convey searing pain and naked vulnerability with their voices, and who look like the guy getting hammered next to you at the bar. Brian Fallon of the Jersey-based Gaslight Anthem is another one of these dudes, and this album is the best showcase of his considerable talents to date.
On the band’s earlier releases, Fallon stayed primarily within his comfort zone of throaty bellowing along to uptempo songs. But on American Slang, it sounds like he took some vocal lessons since 2008’s ass-kicking The ’59 Sound, and this new range – especially evident on “The Diamond Church Street Choir” – renders his solid songwriting that much more emotionally affecting. The band in turn broadens its sonic palette, even trying out some Clash-inspired reggae on “The Queen of Lower Chelsea.” Of course, the band’s most obvious influence remains fellow Garden State icon Bruce Springsteen, and in its themes of nostalgia and redemption, American Slang sounds a whole lot like a record the Boss himself might have cut between Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. In other words, the kind of album I’d like to play while throwing Connick and Buble CDs into a wood chipper.
#6 – Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses – Junky Star
Back in college, my friends and I concluded that Corona is the prototypical “situational” beer; something that can taste exceedingly delicious, but only within a very narrow context. At bars, restaurants, even fraternity parties, it tends to taste absolutely terrible…but when sampled with a lime wedge on the beach during spring break in Florida, it’s somehow transformed into the very nectar of the Gods. It defies any scientific explanation. In any event, I feel like Ryan Bingham’s an artist that, for better or worse, falls into this same category.
Long drives through vast, sandy expanses are hardly uncommon in Arizona, and there’s something about traveling at breakneck speed through such desolate landscapes that simply demands a killer soundtrack. Between Bingham’s history as a professional bull rider, lyrics about persevering through tough times, and a haunting voice that sounds like nothing so much as a chainsaw soaked in whiskey, his music is wonderfully evocative of the great American West. It is, in short, ideal for hurtling down I-8 from Phoenix toward Yuma. It just doesn’t sound the same when you’re, say, folding laundry back in Virginia.
While the best-written song on Junky Star is probably also its best-known – “The Weary Kind,” which earlier this year appeared in the film Crazy Heart and won an Oscar for Best Original Song – the album’s loaded with standouts. “The Wandering” sounds like Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, and “Hallelujah” is a beautiful, slow-building ballad (and not, mercifully, yet another cover of the Leonard Cohen song). In a year of music dominated by waifish, melodramatic girls like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, Junky Star feels all the more anachronistic and compelling.
#5 – Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
There’s already been so much written about this album that I’m not going to waste too much of your time trying to think of something remotely creative to say about it. Yes, Regine sounds more confident here than on the band’s two previous full-lengths, and her key contribution – “Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” – would be on my very short list for Song of the Year. No, I don’t think the suburbs are as sinister as Win so earnestly wants me to believe, though my opinion here might be biased (what up, McLean!). Yes, I’ve seen the Spike Jonze video for “The Suburbs.” No, I do not have any idea what it means. Yes, the album would be better if maybe two or three of its sixteen tracks were trimmed from it. No, I’m not sure what two or three tracks to choose – but would be inclined to keep the phenomenal second half of the album intact. Yes, now that this album’s been nominated for Album of the Year, it’s probably way too mainstream for stupid hipsters to admit that they like it anymore. No, this nomination does not represent some sort of death knell for indie rock. Yes, the album’s better than Neon Bible. No, it’s not better than Funeral. What else is there to say, really?
#4 – Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
I’ll best remember 2010 in indie rock for two distinct trends: the rise of lo-fi production (Wavves, Japandroids, Girls, Best Coast) and the return of surfer rock (Surfer Blood, Real Estate, Washed Out, Local Natives). While I’ve found these lo-fi albums to be especially agreeable companions to my frequent rounds of disc golf (by FAR the whitest thing I do on a consistent basis), in general I prefer the cleaner sound and tighter production of the latter trend. In their debut album, LA-based Local Natives incorporate vintage surf rock with their precise electric guitar picking (especially on “Wide Eyes” and “Warning Sign”), but when they add pounding percussion and soaring, Fleet Foxes-ish harmonies, they create one of the year’s most immediately identifiable sounds of any group.
After Gorilla Manor was released in February, I never would have guessed that it would end the year as my fourth favorite album of the year. But it proved to be like Chinese food: A few hours after listening to it straight through, I had this irresistible urge to do it all over again. And so I did, for weeks and eventually months at a time, finding new things to like about it each time, and new favorite tracks beyond its incredible first four. This is a pretty unusual phenomenon for me; growing up I got pretty sick of my favorite childhood albums – most notably Aerosmith’s Get A Grip and, um, Ace of Base’s The Sign – after the first few dozen listens. That I’m not yet remotely tired of Gorilla Manor is ample testament to its staying power.
#3 – Twin Shadow – Forget and Class Actress – Journal of Ardency (EP)
Nostalgia is a pretty powerful – and profitable – theme for a lot of songwriters. Take Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” Or The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Or (God, why is it so hard to think of a good third example?) Madonna’s “This Used to be my Playground.” Listening to these songs as a kid, I understood that the singers were wistful, even remorseful, when they looked back at their own histories. But a song had never made me feel the same way about my own life, at least not until these two albums came out on the same label earlier this year. And yeah, it might be cheating to have two artists claim one spot on this list, but they’re so incredibly similar, and I needed to find a way to get a girl on this list somehow, so deal with it.
See, both these albums sound exactly like they came out in the mid-to-late 1980s, right about when I was devoting entire summers to playing with He-Man figurines, Matchbox cars, and Ghostbusters toys. George Lewis, Jr. (Twin Shadow) sounds eerily like Morrissey, a likeness made all the more unsettling when you see him for the first time. Elizabeth Harper (Class Actress) sounds exactly like Blondie. They both sing over synth-heavy beats that sound like they’re played on old Casio keyboards that are running out of batteries (Forget was produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, which helps explain this).
But it’s not just the way these albums sound that earn them this spot on the list, it’s the way they effectively estrange my snobbish present from my earnest childhood, and make me feel pretty damn old in the process. The “secret handshakes” Lewis sings about in “Yellow Balloon” meant something entirely different to me as a kid than they did as a college student, and when he sings “I can’t wait for summer, I can’t wait for June” on “I Can’t Wait,” it reminds me exactly how I felt this time of year as an elementary school student – a sentiment distinctly at odds with my own feelings of trepidation about leaving grad school and rejoining the real world in a few months.
#2 – Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
For a concept album loosely based on the Civil War, with half of its songs longer than seven minutes, and spoken word song-intros and bagpipe solos and a song actually called “Titus Andronicus Forever,” maybe only one thing is certain: It’s the only album of 2010 more sprawling and ambitious than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But The Monitor surpasses that album in sheer, good old-fashioned self-conscious anti-establishment passion. The Arcade Fire tried to achieve that with The Suburbs, but when they failed at conveying this (“Half Light” 1 & 2, I’m looking at you), they REALLY failed, and sounded more like pretentious douchebags than anything else. Quite simply, The Monitor does not fail.
If you haven’t heard of Titus Andronicus – and judging by the attendance of concerts of theirs I’ve attended in both Richmond and Phoenix, you probably haven’t – there’s probably something in this album you’ll recognize, and definitely something in it you’ll relate to. There’s a ton of influences evident on this album, from the Pogues’ danceable punk rock, to Exile on Main Street-ish grimy guitar interplay, to Elton John’s anthemic piano chords. But what most defines this album is its overriding theme of dissatisfaction – at the economy, at being from a small town, at being alone, but mostly the kind of dissatisfaction we all feel in ourselves. That’s the Civil War really alluded to throughout the album, and to listen to it – or better yet, to attend one of Titus Andronicus’s phenomenally sweaty concerts – is to experience no less than a cathartic measure of redemption.
#1 – The National – High Violet
Because it sounded like the best album of the year the last time I heard it. Because listening about the mundane problems of 20- and 30-somethings with boring lives has never been more fascinating. Because it’s reassuring to know you’re not the only one with such problems. Because it’s damn near impossible to listen to just one song on this album without wanting to hear the next. Because “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Runaway,” and “Conversation 16” might be the best three songs of the year. Because watching Matt Berninger walk through a silent crowd this fall during “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” as the band onstage behind him played with their microphones turned off, felt more religious than anything I’ve felt in a church in a real long time. Because it sounded like the best album of the year the first time I heard it.