All right, so I know that year-end lists are no longer timely, but I spent a lot of time writing this before I got distracted by the holidays, so I wanted to finish it. Also, not only are my opinions exciting, but this final installment of them is the most important of the award season. What’s that? Awards, you say? How could it possibly matter that any of these albums earned consideration as some dude with a Tumblr’s favorite albums of 2010? Well, actually, all of these albums are going to earn a particularly coveted award for the year 2010: a legal purchase! That’s right, I’m taking this to the next level beyond promotional consideration, so get ready to read about:
The Best Albums I Heard in 2010:
1&2. LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening; Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I can’t really place one of these albums above the other because I think both of them are just such perfect pieces of music, exactingly realized portraits of the respective artists’ visions, front-to-back entertaining pop albums that are, above all, albums. They both represented definitive statements from two of the decade’s most important artists, they both were surrounded by elaborate recording process back stories, they both felt like major media events, at least in the Pitchfork-insulated parts of the world.
This Is Happening was the album that I spent most of the year listening to, the one where I carefully dissected each track, counting different ones as my favorite over the course of the year, ultimately growing into liking the album as the comfortable thing to put on in any mood. It was an album I could think about but also enjoy on a gut level. I never used to be much of an LCD Soundsystem fan beyond “Someone Great” and “All My Friends,” but this album really resonated with me, I think because it was piercingly personal and nakedly emotional in a way that I’m not sure James Murphy has ever been before (although now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to get the sentiments behind songs like “All My Friends” and “Losing My Edge” (picked on shuffle by my iPod as my song for 2011) so maybe it’s an age thing).
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though, was this massive statement from my favorite artist, this event with a film and a Twitter feed (and a clutch retweet!), the album I couldn’t help but completely over-analyze and listen to compulsively for weeks. And then, I don’t know. I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak more all of the sudden, and I didn’t like that album that much when it came out. Ultimately, I really like MBDTF, and I think it might even be Kanye’s most technically accomplished album. It’s a wonderfully au courant and forward-thinking piece of curation. It has “Runaway.” But I’m not sure if, down the line, I’ll listen to it as much as I listen to his old albums. Maybe. It’s hard to tell. I would never accuse Kanye of being difficult, but this is, in some ways, a difficult album. For the sake of metaphors, This is Happening is kind of like a reliable, comfortable pair of jeans and MBDTF is kind of like a sweet Dior suit that looks great but maybe is difficult to fit into all the time (full disclosure: I have never even tried on a Dior suit). Both are great, and one is as much the best album of 2010, the quintessential album of 2010, my favorite album of 2010, as the other.
3. Das Racist — Sit Down, Man
Look, I thought Das Racist was brilliant on the merits of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” alone, but the albums I really love are the ones where something exciting reveals itself with each new listen, and this mixtape has so many punchlines that it does that merely by being too overstuffed to absorb quickly. I think it’s fair praise of an album that seems like it comes from the hive mind of the rap nerd internet to say that I routinely want to use my Twitter purely for Das Racist quotes but don’t for fear of being too esoteric. I mean, these guys pack so much in! You get your celebrity jokes, your rap jokes, your fashion jokes, your trenchant critiques of racial discourse and life in a recession-era capitalist society, your dick jokes — the list goes on! I find something new and hilarious with each listen, and I also tend to learn something or think critically about something I hadn’t considered before, which is pretty good for a piece of art in my book. It also means that I probably listened to this mixtape more than anything else this year, automatically placing it high on the list. Here are some Das Racist quotes I like and thought of in the span of writing this:
“Mock ya/Drop ya/Catch me at the opera with your mama and your papa/Just for fun like ‘where you at man? I’m with your family, dog.’”
“DR so hype, man our hypeman need a hypeman.”
“White people love me/Like they love Subarus”
“They call us joke rap/we kinda weed rap/we just like rap, we don’t even need rap/So get a real job only rap weekly/I don’t need rap, told you rap need me.”
“How come EBT cop Cheetos but not hot coffee?/Same reason Biggie and ‘Pac got shot probly”
“Das Racist, number one slept on/You couldn’t see us like quarks and leptons.”
See, aren’t they great? As a bonus, all of their interviews are amazing, too.
4. Big Boi — Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
For some reason it is really difficult to communicate why this album is so great. There have been so many things written about its funk revival/retro-yet-futuristic-and-ultimately-timeless sound, the way that it fits perfectly into the genre and pushes hip-hop forward despite being mostly recorded a couple of years ago, the way that Big Boi is so indulgently immature, the guest list, I don’t know, what else? I guess all I can say is that it is literally never boring, and it is all about the simple pleasures: shaking it like some Texas Pete dropping on your collard greens, the fact that “the David Blaine” can be done if you’re gay or straight (how progressive!), the best Janelle Monae song of the year (sorry), Gucci Mane having Tyler Perry’s cell number. You just have to let it wash over you and let it, like the bass on “Shutterbugg,” hit you in the gut. Objectively, this may the best album of the year. The only reason it’s not higher on my list is that I didn’t listen to it more, which, come to think of it, what is wrong with me?
5. Fang Island — Fang Island
This may have been, overall, a pretty discouraging year, but you would never know it if you only listened to Fang Island, which I tried to do as much as possible. On their MySpace they describe their music as “everyone high-fiving each other,” and I think that’s entirely apt. This album is packed with sweet guitar solos and arena-style riffs, and listening to it is a constant adrenaline rush. Every time I put this album on I want to start singing along and pumping my fist (side note: most debased action of 2010), although, as two fantastic live shows showed me, I still have no idea what most of the words are. I spend too much time singing along to the guitar riffs, which is awkward in a public setting. But, you know, this is America, a country founded on unabashedly enjoying anthemic rock songs (with a tie-in video game industry to match), so I think I’m just going to say that singing along with the part in “Sidesweeper” where the guitars go “duhnuhnuhneew, duhnuhnuhNUHnuhnuhnuhneew” is patriotic and leave it at that.
6. Vampire Weekend — Contra
Sometime between the leak of their ultra-exclusive CD-R of demos and the release of their first physical album, Vampire Weekend became this horribly maligned band among People Who Understand These Things. I don’t know if I’ve actually met any of these people, but apparently we’re supposed to pay lip service to their hangups about the class and cultural appropriation issues with Vampire Weekend’s music in anything written about the band. Also, apparently, to the fact that Vampire Weekend is no longer hip because they got famous so fast. This is a good point because no one else ever in history has ever gotten something they didn’t deserve because of their social status. The thing is, though, that Vampire Weekend is one of those cases of a band getting big because they actually do deserve it (side note: even if “Holiday” was the sell-out track of the year, Vampire Weekend is still not really that famous). They write some of the crispest, most straightforward pop songs of any band working, Ezra Koenig’s lyrics are uniformly interesting and worth paying attention to, and they have a fairly idiosyncratic sound. Fortunately, they recognized that these were their strengths, and, on Contra, instead of worrying about their critics, they played to the much larger constituency of their fans and made an album that dug deeper into their blend of orchestral-ska-punk-afro-indie-pop. These songs tell some great stories (“Diplomat’s Son”), indulge in wonderful self-awareness (“White Sky,” “Holiday”), delve into genre playfulness (“Cousins”), and ultimately come across as terrifically moving (“I Think UR a Contra”). It is music that is moving, fun, and consistently excellent, so — really — enough with the “backlash.” Also, like many of the albums on this list, it is an album from a band I already like that I enjoy more than their previous output because it somehow feels more personal, more emotionally resonant, and, well, I am a total sap.
7. Toro Y Moi — Causers of This
To me, chillwave pretty much boils down to this album, which adheres, yes, to the idea of 80s synth-pop refracted through contemporary sample-based lo-fi bedroom electronica trends — a combination that is supposed to conjure up the innocence of youth and the careless freedom of summer days at the beach as a protection mechanism against the harsher realities of recession-era twenty-something life — but which is ultimately also about hiding from and coping with emotions. The hazy, disjointed pop here hides emotional vulnerabilities, but it also provides an outlet for Chaz Bundick to work through these vulnerabilities, and it ends with this triumphant explosion of acceptance on “Causers of This.” I love that. This music is so of the moment and trendy and everything else you can claim to hate about chillwave, but it is also invested with a narrative, and it burrows its way through any sort of too-cool defenses you may have erected until you just embrace it, and I think that makes it one of the great successes of form equaling content to come out this year.
8. Rick Ross — Teflon Don
I haven’t listened to the radio in a while because I no longer have a car, so I was pleasantly surprised when I went home for Christmas and discovered that “Aston Martin Music” is all over the radio right now. To me, it was a nice reminder of how incredibly solid this album is. Okay, so the song with Diddy is kind of weak, and the hook on the last song is terrible, but pretty much everything else here could reasonably stand as a single. This is lush, spacious music that makes any car feel like a Maybach, which is, as far as I can tell, the implied goal. As I mentioned when I wrote about “Devil in a New Dress” a few weeks ago, I feel like, at this point, Rick Ross is almost a meta commentary on hip-hop, since he’s totally comfortable rapping about pretty much any topic anyone else has ever rapped about and adjusting his persona to suit. It’s a great tactic because nobody is talking about Rick Ross’s personal life anymore. Nobody cares. He’s basically letting the music speak for itself, and, frankly, this music is just straightforward, flawless, 2010 big-budget hip-hop. Pretty swag, y’all. As a side note to Rick Ross no longer being attacked, how funny is 50 Cent now that he’s given up being intimidating and settled for talking about his dog on Twitter? Oh man, I want to write something longer on 50 Cent and Rick Ross now.
9. Drake — Thank Me Later
The shift to a world where major label artists are as much a brand as they are musicians has probably been about as big a bummer for Drake as anyone else (except the guy who dated Rihanna before him), since in the last year he’s gone from the lovable underdog who leased a Phantom to try to act famous to the corny prima donna of rap with a gray hoodie. Thank Me Later may not have been quite the sequel to So Far Gone that I wanted, but, honestly, given the pressure, it’s amazing that it didn’t end up as just one long track of him farting in Auto-Tune (feat. Ke$ha). And there may have been backlash, but, ultimately, this was the album I couldn’t help listening to this year. It’s easy. It’s catchy. It’s smooth. It has a knockout string of great songs, an unbelievable guest list, and a distinct sound that I’m sure many of Drake’s detractors would bite in an instant if they had they chops (and the production team — shouts to 40) to back it up. If you just accept the soft, emo rapper/crooner thing, you may notice just how brilliant songs like “Shut It Down,” “Karaoke,” and “Miss Me” are. As Nicki Minaj’s album proved, for the worse, this sort of downtempo, melodic hip-hop is going to be a sort of standard for mainstream releases in the years to come, and I doubt that much of it will be as thoroughly listenable as Thank Me Later.
10. White Denim — Last Day of Summer
I feel like if I knew more about music theory, I would probably be both more fascinated and more irritated by this album, which I think is doing all kinds of clever, silly, improvisational things. Instead, mostly, I’ve chosen to cling to the fact that its loose, tossed off form means that the hooks crop up out of nowhere and bounce around until they are stuck in your head and you try to remember which song has which 20-second segment in it by where you were on the El when you were listening to it earlier. Maybe that’s just me. But seriously, this album kind of reminds me of The-Dream in that way — it’s packed full of little moments of brilliance that are never showy but stack up on top of each other to a really satisfying overall experience. It has fun noise experiments, tender pop songs, and silly, jangly sing-a-longs; it never takes itself seriously enough to make you judge the songs, so, instead, you can just enjoy them, and, when it comes down to the best albums of the year, that is clearly the most important criterion!
The Tallest Man on Earth — The Wild Hunt
Deerhunter — Halcyon Digest
The National — High Violet
Wolf Parade — Expo 86
Sleigh Bells — Treats
Earl Sweatshirt — EARL
How to Dress Well — Love Remains
Titus Andronicus — The Monitor
Curren$y — Pilot Talk II
Weekend — Sports
Sufjan Stevens — Age of Adz
Girls — Broken Dreams Club EP
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — Before Today
Deserving of Further Consideration and Albums I’m Looking Forward to Checking Out in 2011:
Waka Flocka Flame — Flockaveli
Tyler the Creator — BASTARD
No Age — Everything In Between
Yelawolf — Trunk Muzik 0-60
Phosphorescent — Here’s to Taking it Easy
Actress — Splazsh
Forest Swords — Dagger Paths
Gil Scott-Heron — I’m New Here
Mavis Staples — You Are Not Alone
Crystal Castles — Crystal Castles
Notable Albums For Discussion
Taylor Swift — Speak Now
The-Dream — Love King
The Hold Steady — Heaven is Whenever
Twin Shadow — Forget
Older Albums I “Discovered” or Were Otherwise Significant This Year
Frightened Rabbit – Midnight Organ Fight
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The-Dream – Love/Hate, Love Vs. Money
Maxwell – BLACKsummers’ Night
So that’s it for 2010! Good year for hip-hop, good year for music, but good riddance! Bring on 2011, am I right? Back to timely blog updates! Eh-oh!