Top 25 Albums of 2010

I’ve been doing a top 10 list of best albums of the year for the past five years or so. But 2010 was a particularly awesome year in music and I felt it was deserving of a top 25. This undertaking has been more intense than I had anticipated, so much so it’s taken me until 2011 to finish, but here it is. It’s a lot to take in, I may have even gone a little over board, but it was fun and I hope you enjoy it.

25) Norma Jean – Meridional

After years of shredding vocals and shredding guitars one would think Norma Jean would start letting up at some point, but with their latest release, Meridional the sound is as fierce as ever. The band has said this album was a return to their roots, which is true in the sense of not being as experimental, but it also demonstrates a progression. They’ve never sounded tighter and it’s clear they continue to get better and better at their craft with each release.

24) Avi Buffalo – Avi Buffalo

Avi Buffalo is band made up of barely out of high school kids fronted by the mousy Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg. I say mousy because of his high-pitched vocals and also his stature. But don’t be fooled, this kid can write some killer tunes. Their debut self-titled album takes indie pop and puts a retro, sometimes psychedelic spin on it. When listening to this album it’s easy to forget these guys and gals are only in their late teens, although lyrically their youth shines through, exploring the many awkward facets of being a teenager, without much left to the imagination. Avi Buffalo will certainly be a band to watch in the coming years.

23) Matt & Kim – Sidewalks

With Matt & Kim, what you see is what you get; a two-piece band made up of a guy named Matt who sings and plays a myriad of keyboards and a girl named Kim who plays drums. Their music is fast, full of boundless energy and hooks. On their latest album however, they’ve taken things in a bit of new direction. The core is still intact, but they’ve traded in the fast, almost punk sound for a dancier sort of sound. The keyboards are bigger and filled with more effects and samples, while a drum machine has mostly replaced live drums. Not as solid of a release as their previous effort, but still a lot fun and catchy as ever.

22) Best Coast – Crazy For You

Best Coast is one of many bands in 2010 that took part in what seemed to be a coincidental resurgence of 60s surf rock made popular by the Beach Boys. Crazy For You from beginning to end congers up faded footage of surfboard covered beaches. Each song is as catchy as the next, filled with fuzzed out guitars and vocals. All the while front women Bethany Cosentino croons over boys she likes.

21) Hammock – Chasing After Shadows… Living with Ghosts

A friend of mine turned me onto Hammock last year and when I heard they had a new album coming out I decided to pick it up. Hammock is a mostly instrumental band, and to be honest I’m not a hug fan of instrumental music, but on this album I was struck by the beautiful soundscapes they’re able to create. Hammock builds upon simple rock songs by adding strings, keys and various ethereal sounds and effects. The result is ambient songs that fill the listener’s imagination with any number of images and emotions. That can be a difficult thing to accomplish even for bands singing lyrics, but Hammock has done it with no words at all.

20) Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More

If there was one band who really blew up this year it was Mumford and Sons, especially here in the Twin Cities. Mumford and Sons is an English band who has a driving folk sound that sometimes reminds me of such punk bands as Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. There is an epic nature to the songs on Sigh No More which makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. The lyrics are hopeful with a sense of longing and it’s for these reasons I think this band got so big and why this album is so good. It has something people can identify with, which is a characteristic I think will always allow a band to fill out venues.

19) Jimmy Eat World – Invented

I always enjoy a Jimmy Eat World album, but over their past few releases I’ve come to know what to expect. Invented on the other hand was not what I expected at all. It’s a much more diverse album and has songs unlike anything the band has done in the past. The album starts off with a striped down acoustic number and finishes up with a couple of slow building six minute plus songs. In between they give us plenty of rocking tracks and poppy songs they’re known for, but with an obvious progression from where they’ve been. Lyrically singer Jim Atkins also took a different route by observing photos from a couple of well know photographers and writing stories based on how the photos inspired him. I love to see when bands push the boundaries of what they can do and Jimmy Eat World has done a great job if it here.

18) Jenny & Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now

Rilo Kiley front women Jenny Lewis is a busy lady. Though she’s taken a rather extend break from her aforementioned band she’s spent her time releasing another solo album and has now moved on to this new project, aptly named Jenny & Johnny with boyfriend/collaborator Jonathan Rice. The album functions as a duet album and its clear the couple have been inspired by the surf rock trend going around. I love Lewis’ voice and it would have been nice to hear more of it, but Rice holds his own on the parts he sings. This album isn’t quite as good as Lewis’ past work, but it’s clear these two are indeed “having fun” plus anything from Jenny Lewis is always a treat.

17) Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Frightened Rabbit are a Scottish band and musically share a lot of similarities with Mumford and Sons. But whatever Mumford and Sons do, Frightened Rabbit do it better. Their folk rock sound has an epic quality, each song building off the energy of the song before. Listening to this album makes you feel like you could conquer the world.

16) Vampire Weekend – Contra

After Vampire Weekend’s huge debut I had a bad feeling they would fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, but they sure proved me wrong. On Contra they took their afro-beat infused pop sound and made it even better. The songs are much more refined this time around and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij’s production is spot on, drawing influence from his Discovery side project. In addition front man Ezra Koenig’s lyrics seem to be focused on more mature themes rather than just girls and Ivy League life as on their first release. Vampire Weekend have proved they are more than just a one trick pony and I anticipate many great releases from them for years to come.

15) Cee Lo Green – Lady Killer

I never got into Gnarls Barkley when they hit it big a couple years ago, but when I started hearing singer Cee Lo Green’s infamous hit single, “F*ck You” I was curious what the rest of the album was like. At first I wasn’t interested in buying the album so I just streamed it on NPR’s website and after that, I was hooked. The album is a total jam front to back. Green’s voice is incredible as he weaves between classic soul, funk, R&B, pop and songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a James Bond film. Lyrically, love is the primary theme which on its own wouldn’t be interesting, but Green’s writing is both witty and truly genuine, leaving you wondering what he’ll say next.

14) Seabear – We Built a Fire

Seabear is a band I discovered this year when reading an interview with Sigur Rós front man Jónsi. The interviewer asked if there were any other Icelandic bands the world should know about and Jónsi recommended Seabear. Naturally I had to check them out. I only recently bought this album so haven’t spent much time with it, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m sure they are a band I’ll continue to follow. For me Seabear will fulfill the void the band Anathallo have left. They are very similar to Anathallo in there organic orchestral sound and wide use of various instruments such as horns and strings.

13) The Drums – The Drums

I love catchy pop music and The Drums self-titled debut may be the catchiest album of the year. Once again, this is another band that has jumped on the surf rock band wagon and these songs would fit in nicely in the 60s California surf scene, and there use of synths would also work well on the soundtrack of any number of 80s era John Hughes movies.

12) Bad Books – Bad Books

Bad Books are made up of the members of Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. I’m a big Manchester Orchestra fan, but not as familiar with Kevin Devine. Overall the collaboration works very well as both Devine and Manchester front man Andy Hull are incredible songwriters. The songs sung by Hull sound like a more stripped down version of Manchester Orchestra songs whereas Devine’s songs are mostly acoustic. As an album it doesn’t flow very well, but it is a great collection of well-written songs. The song “Baby Shoes” may be the best song of the year.

11) Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

I’m not sure what it is about English girls, they seem to possess a deep sense of maturity others lack. At least that is the case with Laura Marling. On her latest album I Speak Because I Can and in interviews I’ve heard she reminds me of Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Lynn Barber in the film, “An Education.” She speaks and writes music as if she’s a much older women trapped in the body of a twenty year old and I mean that as a complement. This album is so beautifully crafted, I’m amazed it was made by someone so young. It is mostly acoustically driven in a folk style while also managing to have the intensity and fullness of a rock album. As good as the music is, Marling’s vocals are even better. The control she has is incredible. On the first track her voice is as strong as it is fierce and then on the very next track it’s delicate and soothing. Even if she wrote terrible lyrics I could just listen to her sing, but as it turns out her lyrics are wonderfully poetic. You really can’t ask for much more on an album and this one’s nearly perfect.

10) Sufjan Stevens – All Delighted People

Technically this album is an EP, but it clocks in at nearly an hour long, which is longer than most full-length albums, so as far as I’m concerned this counts as a full length. Most of the songs on All Delighted People Stevens wrote and recorded following his BQE project, but didn’t make the cut for his full length, The Age of Adz, which was released not long after this EP. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve been getting into Stevens’ music and as soon as I heard the title track I new I’d finally become a full-fledged Sufjan Stevens fan. A number of songs are reminiscent of Stevens’ past work, but the best parts are when he unleashes some killer guitar solos or when he gets all experimental and jazzy on the final 17 minute song, “Djohariah.”

9) Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I must preface this review by saying, I’ve never been a big fan of hip hop and although I’ve respected some of Kanye West’s past work I’ve never bought one of his albums until now. With that said, musically this album is as about as close to a masterpiece as you can get and I fully understand why it’s been a selected as album of the year many times over. Most hip hop is based on a beat, but this album goes much further, giving the songs a depth I’ve never heard in this genre. Each song is masterfully produced and arranged, allowing for new things to be heard with every listen. But what really struck me was West’s use of guest vocalist. Sure every hip hop album has a million guests but West uses them so purposefully, highlighting the artist’s talents without exploiting them or making them the main focus. It’s as though West is the conductor of his own hip hop/pop orchestra or opera for that matter. Despite the praise however, I do take issue with one aspect of this album and that’s its lyrics. The lyrics explore much of the chaotic celebrity that is Kanye West’s life. They are clever at times, but often fall into self-indulgence and are incredible filthy. I guess filthy lyrics are to be expected in hip-hop, but here they are unnecessarily over the top and almost ruin an incredible album. Had the lyrics been better this album would have easily made my top five.

8 ) Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard

Where a lot of bands took cues from the Beach Boys this year, the twin cities own Jeremy Messersmith took cues instead from the early Beatles, creating one of the best purely pop albums in recent memory. Over the course of three albums Messersmith has really honed his craft as a songwriter. On The Reluctant Graveyard he uses death as his muse and there are definitely some darker numbers, like on “Organ Donor” were he documents the loss of his faith. But it’s not all doom and gloom; a number of songs are upbeat and hopeful. The song “Violet!” is a true joy and one of the best songs of 2010. Another highlight is the outstanding string arrangements like on the song “John the Determinist.” The Reluctant Graveyard brings to a close Messersmith’s supposed “pop trilogy” and even though I hope he keeps writing pop songs, I’m sure no matter what he does next, it will be a delight.

7) MGMT – Congratulations

Congratulations is easily the most underrated album of the year. Reviewers have said it isn’t as catchy and melodic as MGMT’s debut. It’s true the band abandoned songs like the hits “Kids” and “Electric Feel” in exchange for a more psychedelic sound but honestly Congratulations is a much more concise and well put together album. It seems as though they found a sound they wanted to go for and built an album around it. But anyone who thinks MGMT lost their sense melody and ability to write catchy tunes is way off track. Songs like “Brian Eno” and the title track are as catchy as ever at yet don’t sound out of place. I personally hope MGMT sticks to their current path and continue to push themselves instead of taking a step backwards.

6) Gayngs – Relayted

Gayngs is the brainchild of producer Ryan Olson who had the idea to create a throwback album reminiscent of 80s slow rock. In an interview though he claims “the only rule was, I just wanted every song to be 69 BPM, so it could be seamless.” In order to bring this project to life Olson enlisted 20 plus collaborators from throughout the Midwest, most notably, members of Bon Iver, Megafaun, Solid Gold and the Doomtree collective. The outcome is in fact a “seamless” slow jam from front to back, with both on 80s vibe and a distinctly modern sound. It’s unclear exactly how Relayted was recorded or who wrote what, but somehow Olson managed to pull it all together. There are so many performances going on and each one blends so well with the next. The vocals particularly stand out on what was one of the most innovative releases of 2010.

5) The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

The Dead Weather came out of the gate guns a blazing. Sea of Cowards is album number two for the band in just its second year of existence. It picks up right where their first album left off, full of bluesy hard rock. Jack White and Alison Mosshart are a match made in heaven and their combined talent along with the rest of the band is just so much fun to listen to. And it isn’t enough that this band is talented; it’s that they’re talented and they know it. Each note is full of confidence and despite the aggressive nature of the music, it comes off as rather care free, more so than any other album in 2010.

4) Sleigh Bells – Treats

What do you get when you mix hardcore, pop, extreme distortion, heavy drumbeats and a whole lot of loud? You get Sleigh Bells. Sleigh Bells are two-piece outfit made up of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss. Miller provides the distorted guitar riffs and in your face beats while Krauss brings a vocal style ranging from sugar coated to all out manic. This band is not for everyone, but I’ve loved every bit of the ride that is Treats. Listening to it is like shooting a shotgun; it’s loud and exhilarating. I’ve never heard anything quite like this album and may have been the most original new music of 2010. I’m not sure where this band can possibly go next, but I’ll definitely be there to find out.

3) Laura Veirs – July Flame

I discovered Laura Veirs completely by accident in 2010. The same day I first heard her music I found out she had a new album and went out and bought it. As it turns out it was on of the best albums of 2010 and may be the best album by a female artist I’ve heard. Much of July Flame is built upon a folk foundation, but Veirs’ unconventional style brings the album in a variety of directions keeping you on your toes. Some songs have orchestral moments while others are reserved and simple. But even when Veirs pull back the reigns, there is still a fullness in the music, sound flows even in the empty spaces creating a warm beautiful vibe. I’m particularly found of the vocals on this album. Veirs herself sings as though she doesn’t know how to sing and yet seems to have complete control of her voice at the same time. She also makes use of some guest vocalist, most notable Jim James of My Morning Jacket. James’ falsetto adds a lovely color to the bouquet of songs he sings on. On the closing track “Make Something Good” Veirs sings a duet with another male vocalist who a adds a deep harmony that will give you chills. The album is an absolute joy to listen to and is one I would highly recommend.

2) Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens released his last proper album, Illinois in 2005 to much critical acclaim and fan fair. Since then fans have longed for him to release a proper follow up. During that time Stevens did release other material, but it wasn’t what fans wanted. It would be logical to assume Stevens felt a considerable amount of pressure placed upon on him by his fans to put out another Illinois however, in a recent interview with Under the Radar magazine Stevens claims all the pressure he felt was pressure he put on himself. Not long after releasing his BQE project (an orchestral piece inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) Stevens began working on what would become The Age of Adz. But instead of writing songs he started out recording and experimenting with various sounds. Also during this time he came down with a mysterious disabling illness and became obsessed with schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. All these factors would play a significant role in the writing and recording of The Age of Adz. The first thing you notice when you put this album on is, gone are the days of Sufjan strumming his banjo and musing about the life of one of the 50 states. Instead you’ll hear the outcome of all his time spent experimenting with sounds, creating a feel reminiscent of dance and electronica. However, those sounds are just the basis upon which this album is built. Stevens takes them and creates huge arrangements incorporating a wide range of instrumentation like he’s know for, but in a way he’s not. And then there is the inspiration behind the album and here lies its genius. As mentioned before Stevens became obsessed with the artist Royal Robertson and Robertson certainly served as a muse for this album. Robertson was a man with many demons, and it would seem Stevens has or at least had some demons of his own. The Age of Adz in a sense, tells the story of his tortured soul. The amazing thing is that he’s able to do this through both the music and the lyrics. There is so much to be felt on this album, by the time you reach the end you feel as though you experienced something profound. Oh, and speaking of the end, yes the end, the album ends with an epic 25-minute song called “Impossible Soul.” As far as I can tell the song is constructed of five movements and is an incredible feat in and of itself. It serves, I believe, to tie the themes of the album altogether, bring in the end and also to bring it back to the beginning. I think it’s safe to say this album is a masterpiece. And it seems as though Stevens needed this album to shake the pressure and stress he put upon himself, sort through who he is as an artist and deal with the turmoil he felt while struggling with a strange illness. And based on what I’ve heard about his live shows of late and what he’s been saying in interviews it seems like he’s having fun and I’m glad for him, I’m glad the experience was worthwhile and that he has an incredible album to show for it, possibly his best to date.

1) Jónsi – Go

Jón Þór Birgisson aka Jónsi is the singer of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. About a year ago Sigur Rós went on hiatus as several of the band members were having kids. During this time Jónsi decided to create a child of his own in the form of a solo album. Coincidentally the resulting album, Go fits the child analogy quite well. There is a sense of child-like wonder woven into each song and a playfulness not found in many Sigur Rós songs. Sigur Rós have soaring epic songs, but often bring the volume and tempo way down. And as much as I enjoy Sigur Rós it’s those quiet slow moments I find difficult to embrace. Jónsi on the other hand takes what he’s know for in Sigur Rós and gives it a pop sensibility and generally more upbeat sound. It’s this combination that makes Go such a great album. It is joyful and puts a smile on my face, keeping me coming back for more. I’m particularly fond of the driving percussion pared with a vast range of instrumentation; it’s clear, Jónsi surrounded himself with incredible musicians. Aside from the music, one thing that cannot go without mention is Jónsi’s beautiful voice. His falsetto is unmistakable and sounds as amazing as ever on Go especially considering he sings much of the album in English. Another reason I chose Go for album of year is because of seeing Jónsi live. The live show was phenomenal, incorporating visual arts creating an immersive experience. Again Jónsi surrounded himself with amazing talent and it made me realize how great the arrangements of these songs are. When songs hold up equally as well on an album as they do in a live setting, it confirms their quality. I don’t think I ever have truely enjoyed an album as much as I enjoy Go and going back to the child-like wonder I mentioned earlier, I don’t think there are many albums out there that have that, without being cheesy. In the spring my wife and I will be expecting our first child, a little boy. And Go is one of the first albums I want to share with him.