The Top 25 Albums of 2010

After gobbling up about 55 2010-stamped LPs this year, here’re some thoughts on the best 25. As a bonus, you may also consider this my albums-of-the-decade list! For about a week.

25. BELLE AND SEBASTIAN – Belle And Sebastian Write About Love

That old guff about so-and-so’s off-day being a good one for everyone else applies, as an overworked Stuart Murdoch’s stack of slightly underwritten chamber pop charms once the initial disappointment’s passed. Fatigue’s apparent in the abundance of truncated vocal melodies (the lazy call-and-response chorus to “I Want The World To Stop” would never make a top-drawer B&S LP), and in the inclusion of a dull Norah Jones duet that would’ve better served as a selling point on a charity comp. Uh-oh, I’ve just slagged off #25!

“I Didn’t See It Coming” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UeFaayyw3o

 

24. ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK – History Of Modern

Some younger rock reviewers would have you believe the old men of the reformed OMD are chasing the pups and falling short. I don’t hear it that way. I hear a pair of master painters -McCluskey and Humphries – effortlessly layering vintage synth sounds over the same gushing, hi-hatted, post-disco beats as every other sweet young thang on the hipster highway, and keeping pace. Not to belabor the point, but the song’s the thing. And these old masters know about songs.

“History Of Modern (Part 1)” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOShjnNpcWg

 

23. SPOON – Transference

Spoon records sound so good the songs are almost secondary. Thankfully they have those too, the Factory Records totem “Out Go The Lights” being my favourite here. Britt Daniel’s music sounds like my stomach feels after too much coffee on too little rest. Probably the internal soundtrack for the cubicle mate with the twitchy leg. You should ask him his favourite band. He’ll stammer, “Spoon!” and you’ll have gained valuable insight. But you’ll never get his tendency to cut off sentences withou    Here he goes agai    Spoon in a nutsh

“The Mystery Zone” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yb1V2yprIJE&NR=1

 

22. INTERPOL – Interpol

Another Interpol record produced to sound like a high-end sound system test disc. Martin Hannett would be proud. The irony is that for all the early-career pigeonholing as a you-know-who soundalike, I’d suggest an “accept no substitute” tag applied to Interpol itself. Pretenders try to replicate the guitar interplay, but they’re nowhere near as fleet of foot. Even half-speed Interpol grooves. You may come to miss departed bassist/arranger Carlos D’s disco bump, but at the rate these guys work at least it’ll be awhile. In the meantime: Interpol – Accept No Substitute.

“Lights” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NogpBvVAZb8

  

21. VIOLENS – Amoral

Spend a good chunk of the year listening to smeary, cassette-quality, 80s-fetishising indie, and then pop this sucker into your player. It sounds like Ryan Atwood if he’d turned into Luke after moving in with the Cohens. It’s that shiny. It also sounds like 1986, just after the new wavers got their first MTV money, and just before they totally ran out of ideas. A little fussy, but these guys can sing and play. Welcome to the O.C., bitches.

“Acid Reign” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rrOQBF8OB4

20. BRYAN FERRY – Olympia

Following Nile Rodgers on Twitter in mid-2009 afforded a novel glimpse into the recording of the ex-Roxy leader’s first real solo record in eight years. For all Ferry’s legendary control-freak machinations he seemed cool with tweeted leaks. But then his people filmed everything too, if bonus DVDs are your thing. Still singing well, if emoting about nothing beyond lipstick traces and caviar dreams, Ferry guides his crack band – heavily comprised of ex-Roxy musicians (just reunite already) – through more of what you – and he- have come to expect. Inessential, but highly recommended to fans.

“Song To The Siren” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4KC9Vr6x7Y

 

19. JANELLE MONAE – The ArchAndroid (Suites II And III)

Instead of being put off by the double-album length hubris or concept-album skepticism, just dive in like it’s an Easter egg hunt and count the glammy gems you come up with. I bet it’s somewhere between six and 10, which is a damn fine yield for anyone. And no two are alike! Soul, pop, folk, rock and Shirley Bassey orch-pomp colours are here in all their iPod-shuffled glory. Prince-like in its magpie appetite for bending genres, I’m still not sure the story’s worth a damn. End justifies means? Sure.

“Wondaland” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYuPoXx188g

 

18. BEST COAST – Crazy For You

With indie pop swamped in the sounds of yesteryear, why not a distaff Jesus And Mary Chain? Where JAMC fearlessly tred, so steps So Cal’s Best Coast: you’ll be seeing ScarJo and Bill Murray on the Tokyo street of your dreams, too. The half-hour run-time hearkens back to another reference point (Ramones), as the songs – mostly good, mostly very similar in cast and content – rarely overstay or overreach. Hazy, lazy, crazy, phase-y, swoony, summertime surf pop.

“Boyfriend” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fjMYI33E8Q

 

17. SHE & HIM – Volume Two

Not to be dismissed as a vanity project by a cute actress – which She undoubtedly is – and a gifted indie guitar hero – which Him undoubtedly is – this is in fact more of Volume One, except better. The last third falls off, but the honeyed rush of the first 25 minutes more than compensates. Sometimes it’s a little treacly – isn’t love always? – but you haven’t lived in 2010 until you’ve grinned like a loon through “Don’t Look Back,” maybe the most adorable song of the year.

“Don’t Look Back” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhWRpx81Nk4

 

16. WOLF PARADE – Expo ‘86

Not like they invented the twin songwriter/lead singer dynamic or anything (I’m more of a Boeckner man, by the way), but Wolf Parade’s done well by it and it’s a bummer to hear that damned “hiatus” word. Wolf Parade’s the result of friendly competition, and the whole’s exceeded the sum of parts, if you ask me. Hefty synth-rock with theatrically ragged singing. Like wolves on parade! The latest – last? – record’s great moonshot is “Yulia”, which stomps along like “Rebellion (Lies)” and affectingly recasts Major Tom’s fate with the Russian cosmonaut program. Here’s hoping Wolf Parade ain’t lost in space with him.

“Yulia” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQgqNwfMDYk

15. GIRLS – Broken Dreams Club

Post-tour EP, a little light on the blistering furies dotting the preceding LP, but just as heavy on the bruised heartbreak. Mopey horn swells compete with weeping pedal steel, coated in swales of early rock-era reverb. Closing track “Carolina” is the hot-tears epic, “Heartbreaker” the snappier, would-be hit. As a singer, Owens taps into some of Alex Chilton’s timeless post-adolescent angst. Different timbre, different back story. But he’s filling a void with this sort of crushed, cautious beauty. You’re a wasted face, you’re a sad-eyed lie, you’re a holocaust.

“Heartbreaker” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PjoMx8mmJI

 

14. TAME IMPALA – Innerspeaker

Remember Ganglians? Sacramento band from a couple years ago? Sounded like they’d fallen into a field of Nuggets comps? Tame Impala’s better. After decades of great bands from Australia’s east coast, Perth’s finally won one for the west: stately, expansive, sun-powered psych rock for beardos, with untrammeled Beatle-studio-era Lennon vocals floating overhead. Every week I had a different favourite, until I ended up with about eight. Wisely, the kid in charge – Kevin Parker – mixes short bursts with longer set pieces, making the whole thing resemble a pleasant afternoon spent in Championship Vinyl. And I’d take this over The Beta Band.

“Solitude Is Bliss” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxvf7gR4-2M

 

13. THE RADIO DEPT. – Clinging To A Scheme

Home to this year’s most summery springtime jam – “Heaven’s On Fire” (decidedly not the KISS song) – and another half-dozen similarly evocative tunes. Fragilely pretty, but rhythmic enough to hint at remixing possibilities, the dated Balaeric beats  send much of this time travelling back into Saint Etienne’s loved-up world of froth, c. 1991, but that’s okay because it’s not presently being done to death. In fact, it’s charming. Love the Swedes. Count on them to never sound like today, but rather some temporally challenged universe where everyone looks like Vendela or Pete Forsberg (yes, dated references). Pure pop for “then” people.

“Heaven’s On Fire” fan video: http://vimeo.com/14026378

 

12. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE – Forgiveness Rock Record

More ramshackle spatter-rock from our favourite hive-mentality arts collective. The last record, too indulgent, broke the spell. I don’t even bother learning their song titles anymore. Lisa’s lighter-than-air electro-pop one. Andrew’s pretty rocker with the punchy horn section. Kevin’s song with the “Crimson And Clover” tremolo vocal. The thing is, much of this is pretty neat. And tighter. Now I’m in that Larry Sanders Show episode come to life: Thanks for booking me Larry, what’s your favourite song on the record? Uh…track five.

Track five live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71-RhS2lhTQ

 

11. ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI – Before Today

I remember a summer in the mid-1980s, when I’d just begun collecting comics and listening to rock radio. My eager mind sponged it all, tripping out on Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man and reeling from the parade of MTV-era pop stars bursting out from tinny bedroom speakers. It was a hot summer, and I’d often go on after-dinner walks with my parents once the air cooled, a rush of daring song choruses, superhero feats, gonzo singing styles and garishly dressed super villains buzzing in my brain, competing for attention, informing my tastes well into adulthood. This record reminds me of that summer.

“Round And Round” fan video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST04DzjLmpA&feature=related

10. DEERHUNTER – Halcyon Digest

One hell of a beautifully recorded record.  “Helicopter” is every bit as crystalline as OK Computer, so is “Earthquake.” I like albums where I can imagine the engineer’s brief. Make it sparkle. Full of winking sound effects sparking neat moments throughout (a meaty sax solo, a high-steppin’ banjo, ear-splitting percussion surprises). The peak comes mid-album on “Desire Lines,” written by the band’s second-in-command. Seven blissful minutes that could’ve been 14, chugging along in locomotive splendour, like Television covering “A Forest” at Hansa-By-The-Wall. Delirious.

“Desire Lines” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW2jOA6uIaM

 

9. ACTIVE CHILD – Curtis Lane

Bit of a crap-shoot, this thing with chillwavers. Save the odd Fallon-to-the-rescue moment (still haven’t gotten over that Neon Indian appearance), there’s no mainstream outlet for the music. Soundscapes, the great Toronto store, told me they “can’t carry everything that gets picked up by the blogs. We don’t have the space.” Which makes this EP’s appearance on my list – or its absence from yours – an exercise in randomness. So it goes for small potatoes like Active Child. Singer’s a choir-trained harpist playing gorgeous Prefab Sprout-by-way-of-New Order synthpop, and he’s unafraid of letting it all hang out. Six songs of soaring, rich, rippling Christmas lights brightness. There’s also a Classixx remix of “When Your Love Is Safe” free to any interested party, and it might be the most beautiful l thing I heard all year.

“When Your Love Is Safe” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8hQZ9Fo6LU

 

8. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM – This Is Happening

Had feverish anticipation for this one, not only because the last one was the best record of its year, but because Murphy hinted the LCD laboratory was closing shop after the requisite touring period. That’d be a shame, but at least he’s been up-front about it. Helps ticket sales too. This Is Happening isn’t as good as Sound Of Silver, but it’s a heavy humdinger nonetheless. Any Bowiephile will enjoy “All I Want” and any Yellow Orchestral Blancmanger “I Can Change,” unless slavish imitation outrages. They’re the twin towers at the heart of a knotty, audacious dance-rock hybrid that reaffirms Murphy’s Johnny-come-lately excellence. I hope he’s as indecisive as Favre.

“All I Want” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ojYi_5tA-I

 

7. KILLING JOKE – Absolute Dissent

No-one ever thought to ask these guys to autograph old vinyl on Bands Reunited? Paul Raven’s death papered over old wounds and his legacy is this sexy beast of a record, a founders-only event 28 years after the original Joke went kaput. I don’t listen to enough dance-metal to know whether there’s anything else remotely as good out there, but I know my Killing Joke, and here’re the deliverables: the death disco groove, the white-hot guitar chording, and the serrated synth effects imparting not a little warmth into the eye of the hurricane. This is no mere career footnote. And good Killing Joke will give you wings, as evidenced by the boogieing skinheads at the show I saw in December. Groovy.

“Absolute Dissent” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGBUxb6yIaM

 

6. TWIN SHADOW – Forget

Twentysomething  Brooklynite does the one-man-band trope proud with debut that poaches from all sorts of new wave standbys without actually sounding like anything in particular. Maybe if Prince hadn’t sought world domination, or found that snare sound, he’d’ve made this record in 1985. But here we are, a quarter-century later, driving along a highway at 2 a.m., with this record blaring. “Shooting Holes” turns the steering wheel into a synthesizer, “Slow” transforms the front seat into a drum kit, and the title track, replete with showy guitar solo, suggests a new purple reign. Through it all, this kid achieves terrific conceptual unity in his playing and arranging. A real shot across the bow. Not a wasted note, nor a waste of your time to investigate.

“Slow” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyO7P6LE7nA

5. BRIAN WILSON – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

He sure doesn’t need any help in the songwriting department (and Gershwin’s never wanted for suitors either), but Wilson continues to amaze anyone paying attention to his late-career surge. Romping through a canon completed 20 years before rock ‘n’ roll – and fiercely protected by elitists ever since – Wilson sidesteps the jive turkey pandering by Rod Stewart et al, taking only the essence of the song into consideration, rather than the definitive versions laid down generations ago. Thus freed – the masters always know how, don’t they – the songs breathe anew in various surf-, baroque- and rock-pop configurations. Plenty of Beach Boys-derived manoeuvres, as expected from a mature, commericial artist. But some of the moves are new even for Wilson: a little spy-flick soundtrack here, a dash of ‘50s sock-hop there. Old styles for even older songs – the uninitiated are still advised to seek out standard treatments (Ella, Sinatra), as the sheer revisionism contained herein kind of limits this record’s appeal to a minority. But the gorgeous musicianship – from the same brilliant band that replicated all those towering SMiLe and Pet Sounds arrangements onstage last decade – guarantees a good time for that select crowd. (Elitists of another stripe, I guess.)

“Summertime” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud2o38cJtDY

 

4. THE NATIONAL – High Velvet

First record issued from the perch of success by one of the great modern bands, and it’s a winner. The National’s song remains the same: the singer plying his voice like a traditional instrumentalist, slurring and repeating phrases, locking into the circular structures laid out by the no-nonsense band. Impressively, this changes from pleading to insistent to angry, depending upon the needs of the song. Where all this teeth-gritting could get tiresome, The National’s head-nodding grooviness lifts them well above the rest of the mid-tempo pack. Maybe it’s in the melodies: “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Afraid Of Everyone” and “Conversation 16” aren’t just loner playlist fodder, they’re also classically excellent songs: rugged, but with a spectral lightness peeking through the cloud cover.

“Afraid Of Everyone” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5C2WVCruPM

 

3. ARCADE FIRE – The Suburbs

Everything about the Summer of Arcade Fire™ screamed BIG DEAL, from the giddy Can-press rollout to the MSG gig to the coronation atop the Billboard 200, and despite the overlong running time (I generally don’t like being bossed around for more than an hour on record by anyone), this record’s worth the investment. AF’s Springsteenian earnestness renders them a little like Tinkerbelle, in that the less you believe, the lower the flame burns. I find AF totally disposable. And yet, despite hardly ever humming their songs in my head, I also find each of their albums awfully appealing in their grandiloquence. I guess that means I don’t mind being bossed around, sometimes. Just please don’t ever make a triple album, Win. The Clash was ridiculous.

“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains”) live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L6ZFhZVOx0

 

2. THE DRUMS – The Drums

The Drums’ list of transgressions should strike chords with anyone who ever dreamt of taking their garage band (or Apple GarageBand) dream to the next stage (or to MySpace). They know they’re not original. They’ve admitted they can’t play their instruments beyond the self-taught arrangements. The singer affects a hammy Bowie-esque croon on tour because a throat injury limits his range. Their music, adolescently transparent love letters to the songs that saved their lives, is pure pastiche: the singer’s phrasing, the drum sound, the tone of the guitar, the build-and-release to-and-from each chorus – it all betrays deep record collections and limitless enthusiasm. Limited musicianship turns the emphasis to writing, which is remarkably adept. The spare arrangements are based upon repetition and simple refinements, but they’re rhythmically persuasive and the choruses are fantastically catchy. Oft-ridiculed singer/producer/main writer Johnny Pierce’s vocal stacking is masterful: he builds chords and shadings on mannish swoops and falsetto trills, an arsenal that sounds brilliant on headphones but has proven impossible to replicate on-stage, which has led to all sorts of split opinions in the blogosphere. But on record at least, The Drums’ hubris hearkens back to a time when pop stars wore crazy frocks and crazier haircuts, but earned their spurs on the back of unforgettable songs. Let the goddamned peacocks strut.

“Best Friend” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LigFu4cQmoY

“Skippin’ Town” audio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vK5YMrRU9ew

 

1. BEACH HOUSE – Teen Dream

Live clips from this record hooked me: Alex Scally seated, legs dancing above his effects pedals, looking like Bowie’s split-screen Saturday Night Live marionette, somehow keeping time with Victoria Legrand bopping over her organ, face partly obscured a waterfall of Dreaming-era Kate Bush hair. The music on Teen Dream is stately, to the point I’d first taken it for loops and sample triggers. But the clips show the music is alive, all heartbeat and toil, which is what the songs essay as well. “Walk In The Park” is about the dissolution of relationships; the massive, M83-intensity of “10 Mile Stereo” conjures the image of Lloyd Dobler and his boombox. “Limbs parallel, we stood so long we fell.  Love’s like a pantheon, it carries on forever.” I just realized I’ve referenced John Cusack movies twice in this year-end review, one about music fanaticism and the other about romantic fixation. Permit me this, because they’re the twin engines that power most great records in the first place. Teen Dream’s songs are built on such ideals, frosty-sounding creations with furious heat pounding away from within: illicit temptation in “Lover Of Mine,” naïve trust and subsequent demolition in “Norway,” warning bells sounded by re-engaging  the wrong person in “Silver Soul.” It’s a staggering album. My brother criticizes my restless interest in new-gen music when my age group’s generally slid into playlisting the songs of their formative years. My counter is it’s a shame how many Beatles/Beach Boys/Motown fans likely slagged off The Smiths, Talking Heads and Factory Records in the early-‘80s on the grounds of newness. Which happened a lot, so brother has a point. But do you really want to be that guy?

“Norway” fan video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHbtR8uO81M

“Walk In The Park” live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ihr_xQ6M62M

“10 Mile Stereo” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITOAtVwF5Wc

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