Be still, your heart. It’s another year-end list. Yesterday’s was about books. Today’s is all about the music.
2010 was an uneven, inconsistent year for music. It wasn’t what I would call a banner year for music, but it had its share of high notes.
Around the middle of the year, I noticed that a lot of geezer rockers were releasing some pretty decent albums. Neil Young, Tom Petty, Mavis Staples, Steve Miller, Robert Plant, Peter Wolfe, John Mellencamp — even Devo got in on the act, and Bruce Springsteen entered late with a compilation of dusted-off tracks from the ’80s. Non-rocker geezers like hard-country stalwart Merle Haggard also raised their voices. Ol’ Merle released a beaut, and thanks to Rick Rubin and company, another country legend, Johnny Cash, released the final (?) album of the American series posthumously under the fitting title American VI: Ain’t No Grave.
While it was comforting for me (a geezer) to hear many of the old-timers, 2010 also saw some talented new acts come to the fore. Janelle Monae, Fitz and the Tantrums and the rockingest band you’ve never heard of, J. Roddy Walston and the Business, were my favorite new discoveries. There was also plenty of electro-pop, synth-pop and other fuzzy neo-punk/indie genre-bending ear candy this year, but with a few exceptions (Wavves, Caribou, Superchunk), most of it was not music to my ears. Many of your indie-music favorites (Arcade Fire, the National, Spoon, Vampire Weekend) came out with strong albums, as you figured they would. So did some more mainstream popsters (Gorillaz, Kanye, the ubiquitous Lady Gaga). The year had its share of disappointments (such as MGMT’s sophomore effort, Congratulations, the Hold Steady release and M.I.A.’s ///Y/, which did win for weirdest album title of the year) but it also contained some pleasant surprises (Belle and Sebastian, Broken Bells, a decent Of Montreal album).
But enough of the wrap-up. Let’s get to the list. If you want more views from higher ed music nerds, check out the collaborative effort I and nine others from the higher ed world compiled over at the Higher Ed Music Critics blog. There we listed our top 50 in two parts (50-26 and 25-1) as well as our personal top fives, a couple of cameo appearances by guest bloggers and some other stuff.
My 50 favorite albums of 2010
1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I know: Predictable. What can I say? From the opening “Lake Shore Drive”-style piano rag of the title track, this album had me hooked. This, the band’s third album, is their most sweeping and ambitious. Taking on the themes of identity and spiritual survival in the world of superficiality that is “the suburbs,” this project is as sprawling as the title implies. Bonus: this amazing video experience, The Wilderness Downtown (view in Chrome), is one of the most amazing interactive experiences of the year. And this video for the opening track has to be one of the most disturbing yet artful.
2. Robert Plant – Band of Joy
The former Led Zeppelin front man surprised many a few years ago by teaming up wit bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss. This album, a collection of rootsy covers and traditional Americana, is an even more pleasant surprise.
3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Here’s an idea: Create a concept album based on an ancient dystopian movie most people have never seen or heard of: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Thankfully, someone in the music business saw something promising in the crazy idea, and in the zany but soulful style of Janelle Monae. For sheer ambition alone, Ms. Monae’s debut album deserves to make the list.
4. Broken Bells – Broken Bells
A creative collaboration between the Shins’ James Mercer and the man with the golden touch, Danger Mouse. The Broken Bells project turned out better than I thought it would. It is certainly better than any Shins output in some time, and Mr. Mouse adds just enough to not distract from Mercer’s mellifluous vocals.
5. John Mellencamp – No Better Than This
An amazing production. In order to capture a true old-timey feel for this album, Mellencamp and his band went to great lengths. Specifically, they took their instruments, single microphone and mono-recorder to three sites: the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios and the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson recorded “Crossroads.” The result is raw, rough songs of loss, sorrow, joy and longing. And life. No Better Than This is Mellencamp’s best. View the video trailer about how this album came to be.
6. The Black Keys – Brothers
According to this list, Brothers is the year’s favorite album for whiskey drinkers. Maybe that’s why it only came in at No. 6 for me. Still, a solid offering of blues-infused rock and roll, and their video for the song “Tighten Up” is one of my favorites of 2010.
7. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
New Jersey’s heirs apparent to the blue-collar rock of Springsteen, the fellow New Jerseyans who make up The Gaslight Anthem are not afraid right into those big shoes and make some big music.
8. Yeasayer – Odd Blood
Yeasayer is an odd band. Their prior album, All Hour Cymbals, didn’t quite resonate with me. But Odd Blood is poppier, catchier, more accessible. The tunes are danceable, even. It sounds as though Yeasayer has been listening to a lot of Passion Pit and has smoothed over the rougher edges of their previous efforts. Good stuff.
9. Fitz and the Tantrums – Pickin’ Up the Pieces
Best blue-eyed soul of the year. Just a fun, foot-tapping album.
10. John Legend and the Roots – Wake Up!
John Legend and the Roots artfully recast a handful of ‘70s-era soul tunes from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Harold Melvin. This album’s gem is the live-recording cover of Bill Withers’ anti-war anthem “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.”
11. Drive-by Truckers – The Big To Do
12. Jonsi – Go
13. Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
14. Vampire Weekend – Contra
15. Belle and Sebastian – Write About Love
16. Alejandro Escovedo – Streets Songs of Love
17. Caribou – Swim
18. Sade – Soldier of Love
19. New Pornographers – Together
20. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
21. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
22. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
23. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am
24. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone
25. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
26. Girl Talk – All Day
27. Of Montreal – False Priest
28. J. Roddy Walston and the Business – J. Roddy Walston and the Business
29. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise
30. Neil Young – Le Noise
31. The Black Crowes – Croweology
32. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
33. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
34. Tom Petty – Mojo
35. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
36. Tokyo Police Club – Champ
37. Wavves – King of the Beach
38. Black Mountain – Wilderness Heart
39. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
40. The Whigs – In the Dark
41. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
42. The Vaselines – Sex With An X
43. Spoon – Transference
44. Elvis Costello – National Ransom
45. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding
46. Shelby Lynne – Tears, Lies and Alibis
47. She & Him – Volume 2
48. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
49. Sleigh Bells – Treats
50. Basia Bulat – Heart of My Own