This list of my top albums of2010 has literally been in the making for 365 days. I know that sounds obvious, but I love writing this year-end column and I’ve been consciously “bumping” albums in favor of others all year long. Recently, I’ve had friends ask me what my top albums of the year are. After being slightly taken aback – and flattered – that they even had an interest in my opinion on the matter, I gave teasers to one or two of them, gave my entire list to one particular close friend (who was buying them all on Boxing Day) and told a few others to read this column. (Sorry to make you wait a bit!)
For the rest of you, I just hope to keep you mildly entertained for a couple of minutes and, perhaps, make you think about what the best albums you heard this year are. Feel free to tell me yours in the comments section below. With all the music that’s out there, I’m keen to know if there are any I might have missed.
The last few months has seen Andy B and I debating the merits of our favorite pieces of music with a true fan’s exuberance. You can read about his choices for the top 5 albums of 2010 here. Although we’ve discussed our faves, I think even our esteemed Editor-In-Chief will find one or two surprises on this particular list. They were surprises for me, too.
Without further ado, then…the top 5 albums of 2010 are:
5. The National – High Violet
I’m not a huge The National fan. Normally, I hear them somewhere in the background while my brother is playing one of their records either at his condo or in his car. Still, there was something about the sounds in High Violet that perked my ears – and those ears stayed perked for the better part of the year. Melancholy, serene, sometimes sultry but always affecting, High Violet, the bands fifth offering, always remained an engaging listen despite its rainy day sound.
In-between the staple morose sounds of The National, there were joyous moments to be found here. Bloodbuzz Ohio soars to new musical heights for the band with its haunting piano chimes and bursting drum loops, all coupled with lead singer, Matt Berninger, crooning, “I still owe money to the money I owe”. The song is made all the more haunting by his deep, baritone voice, a trait that runs, as it should, throughout the entirety of the record.
The slow build of England containing the lyric “You must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain” picks up where the uplifiting Bloodbuzz Ohio stops, culminating in a stadium-sized sing-along that would end the album if not for the tender bedtime finale of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.
Slow, mainly quiet and respectful, yet still brimming with artistic desire, The National have created a sensitive album that submits and embraces human emotion. It might be raining outside but High Violet will bring a little sunshine to any grey day.
4. Vampire Weekend – Contra
Who wouldn’t want to be drinking Horchata in December?
That tasty, ground almond beverage is the title of the first track in Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra – and it kicks the record off with quite a bang: deftly struck xylophone planks, rushing drum and bass grooves mixing effortlessly with programmed sound effects and sweeping strings. The song sounds marvelously like playfully bursting bathtub bubbles.
And that image is what makes Contra so brilliant. Amidst the sweet Paul Simon-esque vocals of singer Ezra Koenig is an album full of comforting, childlike fun and springtime noise. These are musicians enjoying their art and that joy is infectious. Contra is world beat in its sounds mixing indie art rock with ska, ambient electronica, rap and rave together into alchemist gold. Run will have you singing in your car while Diplomat’s Son will have you bopping your head when doing the laundry or vacuuming. The album closer, I Think Ur A Contra, on the other hand, will tuck you into bed on an early summer evening.
Lawsuits over album cover artwork aside, Contra is Vampire Weekend’s first number one in the charts, selling over 4000,000 in the United States alone. It should be in your collection as well. Heard whilst drinking horchata, of course.
3. Bran Van 3000 – The Garden
The city of Montreal gets represented in one of my year-end Top 5 lists again. There’s been some pretty special music coming out of that town the past decade and Bran Van 3000’s fourth album, The Garden, is a testament to that magic.
This 15 track recording, featuring guest appearances from musical artists normally found in circles I don’t generally gravitate towards – Jamaican rap, R & B, soul and modern, big box dance clubs, is an absolute delight from start to finish.
The Bran Van 3000 collective, Canada’s own Gorillaz, takes the listener on a journey seemingly through the length of a day. Utilizing string arrangements and acoustic guitar, we start with sounds and rhythms seemingly found in the early morning in songs like Oui Got Now and then move to hazy dub-based music in the afternoon, heard in You Too. Later, as daylight turns to starlight, the album picks itself up with party and dance floor beats. First single, Grace (Love On The Block), is amped up energy with its chorus of “la la la la la la la” – something that all the club kids will love. Jahrusalem ups the ante, harkening heavy house music comingled with flourishes of electronica and rap. World Party keeps the good times rolling with a syrupy bass groove, plucky guitar and soulful vocals while the seven minute long Stillwater Cats completes your aural adventure with a return to strings and electronic samples amidst a world beat sound.
Bran Van 3000’s latest is musical genius, their best offering yet, daring the listener to ever turn the music off. Putting it on your record player or iPod is akin to having your own personal DJ, someone who only plays the songs you’ve been dying to hear all of your life.
The Garden wins every time and listening to it, you will too.
2. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Working with Snoop Dog, Mos Def, Lou Reed and Bobby Womack on a new album? Having punk rock legends Paul Simonon and Mick Jones of The Clash back you up on bass and guitar respectively? That’s just not fair! It must be some kind of crazy dream – that’s the only explanation, right?
Well, something like that could only happen in the fictional, cartoon world of Gorillaz.
It’s a testament to Damon Albarn’s musical chops, ringleader of the virtual band, that he was able to assemble this all-star cast of musicians for the third offering from Gorillaz, the amazing Plastic Beach. With this band, a collective that changes from album to album, Albarn can move in any musical style that he wants and with the concept album Plastic Beach, it was funk, soul, hip-hop, electronica and rap – all rolled up in a pop-flavoured shell that interested him.
Perhaps not as affecting as the group’s last album, Demon Days, Plastic Beach still contains a number of top tunes running throughout it’s politically aware narrative of consumerism amidst natural resource shortage. Stylo is a kick ass, bass driven tour de force while On Melancholy Hill is a breezy and contented come down from the trappings of this digital age. Empire Ants and To Binge are beautiful songs, delicately presented by the sweet, quiet but powerful vocals of Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon – live favourites to be sure. But it’s the Mos Def fronted poetry of Sweepstakes that demands to be heard here, a rolling drum-fuelled celebration of lower class culture rising above its station in life. An amazing piece of songwriting.
Plastic Beach by Gorillaz has something for everyone, always exuding a musical braveness that elevates it beyond the status quo, cartoon or not.
1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Remember what I said about Montreal? Magic, I tell you, sheer magic.
It’s only their third album, but with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire seem to be older, wiser, perhaps slightly more melancholy, as they look back on a youth spent outside of the city limits. The album is a story of what those neighbourhoods are like, the people that live within them and the kinds of fiction (and non-fiction) that permeate through them.
It’s not story time, however. No, this is an album of truth, about the need to break away from the mundane, to seek out one’s path and find a place in this world. The glow of the big city lights, of course, relentlessly beckons.
Arcade Fire are still singing to the kids here. Rocking songs like Ready To Start and Month of May prove that hypothesis. Not entirely grown up just yet, however, the band still appeals to the older adult, found in that sense of understanding that only comes with experience. Why else would we get the guitar-driven, REM-feeling Modern Man or the Blondie inspired Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)? Arcade Fire are both masters and students of their art.
Still, it’s the lynchpin song, We Used To Wait, upon which the album revolves. This is the coda to a brilliant recording: that there was a time when information wasn’t so instant and that those bygone days were a better time, that there was more meaning to relationships back then. “Hope that something pure can last” wails singer Win Butler, a testament to instant gratification and the setting aside of the just received for the brand new about to arrive. Everything these days: records, homes, people, love – is disposable.
The Suburbs is a glorious rock album – both musically and thematically. It rises far above the mundane, kicking and screaming the entire way, orbiting a place in the musical landscape as something that all musicians should aspire: an instant, relevant and timeless classic that occupies it’s own place, set aside from all others.
Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs shines its own bright light, a triumph over so many things.