Thursday, September 23, 2010

Premature Year-End Roundup

I have been more plugged in to the music scene this year than I have in recent years. Perhaps it has to do with using a passion for new and exciting music to replace all that time I spent doing school work. Maybe it's that I spend far too much time listening to NPR's All Songs Considered and Chicago Public Radio and PRX's Sound Opinions while I drive around for work. It's probably a combination of those things. But I've already picked my five favorite albums for this year. I am well aware that there is more music yet to be released, and that some of it that I am unaware of may just blow these five out of the water. But, that having been said, these five are great. Granted, only the top two of these would have made it onto my "Best of the Decade" list if they had been released last year, which would have put the grand total of 2009 releases on that list up to five (a third of that list, wow...) but, in the months since I made that list, I realized I made errors. First off, Radiohead's Kid A should have been much higher on the list. Also, there was a noticeable lack of OK Go's Oh No which is a horrible oversight.

But, the list was subject to my mind frame at the time. I'm sure in six months when I think back, I'll have even more quibbles with it. Which only serves to remind me that this list of five could be the subject of ridicule in years to come, but for now, this is what I like, so this is what you get.

Also, sorry for the lack of posts about writing, and the lack of excerpts. When I'm writing but not working on the novel, I'm blogging, so I don't have much of anything else to share with you all. So, here goes; top five albums of 2010, mini-reviews of each, and a short list of what else you should listen to. I hope you find something you enjoy on here. Oh, and a note to a particular reader who criticized my Best Albums of the Decade list for its lack of female artists; I do apologize. It was not my intention to be misogynistic and, for the record, there are women who are members of The Decemberists, women in Sufjan Stevens' band, women in DeVotchka, and the first time I heard The Mars Volta, I thought the singer was a lady. Hopefully, I've remedied that by having a female artist in my top five and two more rounding out the list. Check it!

Top Five Albums (So Far) of 2010

5. Dark Night of the Soul - Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse
Picks: "Little Girl (Featuring Julian Casablancas)" "Insane Lullaby (Featuring James Mercer)" and "Grim Augury (Featuring Vic Chesnutt)"

The world has been waiting for this album for over a year. We waited through legal battles with Danger Mouse's label. We waited through a very limited release of David Lynch's companion book (complete with a CD-R labeled "For Legal Reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will."). We waited with sadness through the suicides of contributing artist Vic Chesnutt Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous. It was finally released in July of 2010, with more emotional weight and poignancy than originally intended. With that backdrop, it's hard to criticize the album too much. There are gems on this, like Chesnutt's contribution "Grim Augury" and James Mercer's "Insane Lullaby" (recorded before Mercer and Danger Mouse collaborated on Broken Bells). Jason Lytle makes a great appearance, but then you've got David Lynch's vocals on the title track, and Black Francis' contribution "Angel's Harp" feels a little forced. Still, the album packs an emotional punch in a beautifully produced package.

4. Of The Blue Color of the Sky - OK Go
Picks: "This Too Shall Pass" and "End Love"

OK Go understands the role the internet plays in selling music; they proved this with the video for their hit "A Million Ways" in 2005. The song was off their second album Oh No and the video became a viral sensation. Within a year of its release, the video had been downloaded over nine million times. It's still one of the all-time most watched videos on youtube. With this latest album, EMI and Capitol records took steps to block youtube videos from being embedded on other sites (such as this blog) in an effort to keep ad revenue. The way it works, apparently, is that every time you watch a music video for a Capitol Records artist on youtube, advertisers pay the record company. When the video is embedded on a different website, the advertisers do not pay. The band was furious with Capitol's decision to block embedding, as the embedding of "A Million Ways" and the second video from Oh No "Here It Goes Again" were crucial to the success of that album. OK Go split from Capitol, re-releasing the record in April (originally it had been released in January). By way of announcing this newfound freedom, the band recorded a new video for their first single "This Too Shall Pass" which remains one of the greatest videos ever released (check it out below). The DIY feel of the video is perfect for the band's brave new world. But on top of their amazing video-making skills and their new-order business savvy, OK Go has turned out a fine album which has been compared to both Radiohead's OK Computer as a turning point in their career and to the best work of Prince (listen to "White Knuckles" and you'll see what people mean). "End Love" is a personal favorite for its mood, and the video is, again, pretty sweet.

3. The ArchAndroid: Suites II & III - Janelle Monáe
Picks: Whole Album

This album is an anomaly in multiple respects. A) It is a concept album released in the era of the single digital download. B) It is a concept album released by a hip-hop artist. C) It is a concept album with a Sci-Fi theme. The strangest thing you can say about this album is that it's a hip-hop sci-fi concept album that was released at the height of the digital download explosion. Just say that to a random passerby, and watch the look of sheer incredulity they'll give you. This album is a follow up to Monáe's 2008 EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite (a hip-hop sci-fi concept EP released at the beginning of the digital download explosion). The underlying story is that Monáe herself is from the year 2719, where she was cloned and sent back in time and now resides in a mental institution for the creatively insane (are you with me so far?). The clone is a human/android hybrid which has become the savior of the human race in the future (got it?). Sounds strange, I know. But this album is solid, cohesive, smart and beautiful. The cover is a clear tip-of-the-hat to Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. The first fourth of this album is a great onslaught of dance-beat underneath some of the best hip-pop released in the last year. Monáe (along with indie-rap artist Kid Sister) is doing a more artistic, less mass-market version of Lady Gaga; create a pop persona independent of your personal life. I would argue that Monáe does it with a bit more artistry and less attention to grabbing media attention. Monáe would never show up anywhere in a meat dress, but she might show up in futuristic garb, ready to churn out energetic dance-pop and inspired, soulful rapping.

2. Broken Bells - Broken Bells
Picks: Whole Album, with special attention to "Sailing to Nowhere" "The Ghost Inside" and "The Mall and Misery"

I reviewed this album back in March and speculated that it would still be at the top of this list at year's end, and while that isn't so, the album is still one of the best pop albums I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. You can read the original review for more in depth, but sufficed to say I would classify this as 2010's perfect indie-pop album. With this and Dark Night of the Soul both landing spots in my top five, I think it's safe to say that in today's music scene, you're nobody if you haven't collaborated with Danger Mouse on an album. If you like the idea of hot androids (like, say, if you really liked the look of the cover of the number 3 album), you can check out the video for "The Ghost Inside" with Mad Men's Christina Hendricks below.

1. The Suburbs - Arcade Fire
Picks: "The Suburbs" and "Modern Man"

I have already talked about how this album has had a particular effect on me at this particular point in my life. But there's more to it than the one line in the title track. There's the idea that this record is not about the suburbs but from the suburbs, as singer Winn Butler has said. And I hate to compare another album to OK Computer, so I won't except to say that this is the same kind of step from previous work that Radiohead took with their third album, only this is better. This is 2010's second perfect pop album, and is only hampered in its accessibility by its scope and ambition. I would say that it's the aural equivalent of reading D.J. Waldie's Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (2005). Having grown up in, and now still living in, a suburb (I would go so far as to say that my current home is more suburban than my previous one, as I now live on a cul-de-sac on a street with fifty more or less identical houses), I see beyond that initial, forceful impact the album had on me to its second punch. Not that we were in great need of any validation of our angst and fears, but this is an album for anybody and everybody who grew up in the suburbs and find life in the real world slightly off-center from where we thought we'd be. Maybe we thought we'd be like Winn Butler, the rock star. Maybe we thought the college degree would guarantee us the perfect life. Maybe we were so blinded by the promise of what was to come that when we were growing up, we didn't take the time to notice that whatever "the perfect life" is, we had it pretty well made. Or not. There's a great line in the song "Modern Man" that goes "Like a record that's skipping I'm a modern man/and the clock keeps ticking I'm a modern man." I listen to that, and I decided, no more skipping. No more standing still. I've got a wonderful family and still plenty of opportunity in front of me. It's time to start taking advantage of that. And that, my friends, is why this is the album of the year.

Rounding Out the Top 10 of 2010:
Transference - Spoon

Hawk - Isobell Campbell & Mark Lanegan

Gorilla Manor - Local Natives

Brothers - The Black Keys

I Learned the Hard Way - Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Also Mentioned in this Post:

1 comment:

Bridget said...

I love Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings...they were high energy at the Newport Folk Festival (even though I don't see them as "folk")