Best of 2010: 10-1

10. Wolf Parade – Expo 86

It’s a rock and roll cliché, but it’s only a matter of time before either Spencer Krug or Dan Boeckner get to big for their britches and decide to go it alone with one of their side projects. Both Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown are almost as popular as their better-known band. Wolf Parade wouldn’t survive without both of these forces intact. That
perfect mix of Roxy Music art-rock and the Springsteen heartland classic rock is what makes these guys special. Fortunately for us, they kept it together on this one and made one of their best records to date. – WH

9. Hot Chip – One Life Stand

When prototyping circuits, you know you have a big problem when you get a hot chip. But when Hot Chip is referring to the synthesizer pop band, you have absolutely no problem. In fact you have negative problems; you’re going to have fun! The songs on this album are clear and lucid. The mix is clean, placing sonic focus on just the instruments that deliver the skeletons of the songs, which is a sign that the band went into the studio knowing exactly what they wanted to make. The mood bounces around between dance pop and something a little more serious, creating an overall balanced and interesting record.  – DH

8. The National – High Violet

I am constantly baffled at The National’s enormous popularity. If you were to look at the parts that make up the whole you’d think they’d be a colossal failure. Slow-paced, melancholy songs delivered in a limited-ranged baritone played by a band that refuses to draw attention to its skillful playing. It is that restraint that makes The National a huge success. Each song on High Violet is meticulously crafted and performed. The band delivers exactly what the song needs, nothing more and nothing less. They are at their very best here and the lush production only adds to the rich imagery of love and loss detailed throughout. This may be their best work. Where do they go from here? – WH

7. Belle and Sebastian – Write about Love

Belle and Sebastian are up to their same old tricks, but luckily for us their tricks are awesome. The first track I Didn’t See It Coming starts out simple and builds into a cymbal crashing jam with vocal trade offs between the two singers. There are several vocal collaborations on the album, and all of their voices really fit the “wistful pop” mood that the band creates. The lyrics are memorable and touching, and the melodies inspire sing alongs. The band worked with the same producer as their previous album, The Life Pursuit, but this time around the album seems more personal and cohesive. – DH

6. Broken Bells

Dangermouse and James Mercer. It’s the kind of team-up fanboys fantasize about, like Wolverine meets Conan or Family Circus meets Sin City: initially awesome-sounding, potentially enjoyable, but impossibly unlikely. Yet it happened! And unlike my other cross-over suggestions, the real thing is actually awesome. Brian Burton aka Dangermouse, exceptional in his role as an artist-producer, and James Mercer, the lyrical romanticist fronting The Shins, collaborate on Broken Bells, an album that exhibits the extraordinary talents of its creators.  Dangermouse has demonstrated his penchant for lending albums a dreamy, outer space quality in Gnarls Barkley’s St Elsewhere and Beck’s Modern Guilt, and he again favors that subterranean echo that is all at once spacious yet intensely concise. Mercer’s minstrels can be emotionally striking without sounding forceful. “Does anybody out there feel that fear?” his meandering voice asks in “Your Head’s On Fire.” And as a lyricist, he’s one of my favorites: “Remember what they say/There`s no shortcut to a dream/It`s all blood and sweat/And life is what you manage in between.” His wording is simple, but profound. I like thinking about what he says, and even though I may not agree with his philosophies, he stirs up my sympathy.This album is the perfect bridge between Gnarls Barkley and the Shins: a product that is equally balanced between two of the most professional and talented artists of our time. Dangermouse has said that he wants his next project to be a new Broken Bells record. Let’s hope he’s not blowing smoke. – RF

5. Vampire Weekend – Contra

People seem to like Vampire Weekend for different reasons. Recently, a lot of people like their knack for selling Hondas, but I like them because they make eating tacos really fun. (Among other reasons.) We recently had a taco night, and this album was chosen to soundtrack the event, and it really was perfect. (Try it.) When this album came out in January, we all knew it was fun, and the chance for it to simmer in our CD players for 11 months certainly did not hurt. The way that all the elements come together in this album make it really enjoyable: the often unconventional drums, the cool-guy singer, the spacious backup vocals, and use of synths only where necessary… it’s all so good.  – DH

4. Gorillaz  – Plastic Beach

There is no other band that I can think of that adheres to a theme more fervently than Gorillaz. Therefore, it is no surprise that on Plastic Beach, an album devoted to mankind’s preoccupation with artificiality, Damon Albarn and company shed the animated veil that has shielded them since the group’s inception and step into the world’s eye. This is true not only of the performances during the band’s first world tour, but also in the production of the album itself. Dan the Automator and Dangermouse, whose fingerprints conspicuously pervade Gorillaz’s prior LP’s (Gorillaz and Demon Days, respectively), are no where to be found. It’s strictly Albarn directing the production; although, that’s not to say he does everything himself. As usual, a plethora of talent was gathered to collaborate underneath the Gorillaz banner, including Mos Def, the Lebanese National Orchestra of Arabic Music, and Little Dragon, just to name a few. While the disparity in the artists’ individual styles could create a jumbled album of strange sounds, under Albarn there is a comfortable progression from track to track, each one addressing the calamities of a plastic world, a universe of facade. Plastic Beach is a fictional island of the band’s design where all of the world’s kitsch, every outgrown material obsession, has collected to form a land mass at Point Nemo in the South Pacific Ocean. It’s no wonder that the first voice you here on this island of defunct trends is Snoop Dogg’s; one of the most recognizable figures of 90’s gangsta rap. His flow is contagious, if at times nonsensical (“belly floppin’ lockin’ while I’m rockin’ in the bubble bath”), but his presence cleverly introduces the album’s theme. The counterpoint to Snoop comes in the form of Mos Def and De La Soul, rappers emblematic of East coast, “smart” hip-hop. The performances by Bobby Womack, Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed reference music that is no longer on the forefront of the popular conscious; in fact, you could say Albarn has developed a habit, much like Tarantino, of reviving obscure and forgotten artists by reintroducing them through his projects. Expanding on that similarity, Bruce Willis is featured in the video for “Stylo,” which is an homage to violent car chases. But I don’t want to fawn over the old. The contributions of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Little Dragon are highlights of the album, particularly on “To Binge” where Albarn and Little Dragon lament the end of a relationship based on mutual addiction. Though this album lacks the strength of a single like “Feel Good Inc.”, it more than makes up for it in song-writing. From the saturday morning commercial jingle “Super Fast Jellyfish” to the group’s first real love song “Melancholy Hill,” Plastic Beach is a rich and dense work that rewards those who listen to it multiple times. For more information on all the intricacies of the album, check out the band’s website. – RF

3. Walkmen – Lisbon

If you’re The Walkmen, preparing to follow up You & Me, arguably 2008’s best album (no argument from me, mind you, but this still is a democracy), you focus on everything you did right, but set course for a new destination.  Lisbon may as well be another time and another place, a romantically ambiguous locale swimming through the same spiraling guitars and dreamy organ melodies that made their last album so timeless.  The optimism bubbling under the surface of You & Me’s loneliest wanderings is realized here: even after heartbreak and homeless misdirection, life is sweet. Recklessly so, like falling in love with snowfall in March, or a streetlamp city that only sighs in Portuguese. Hamilton Leithauser is “Stranded” but starry-eyed, and the passion is palpable. – MDG

2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

James Murphy, act your age. Follow up the sublime Sound of Silver and “All My Friends” (Song of the Decade? I think so.) with an even better album.  In so doing, prove that as one of this country’s finest musicians, producers, and lyricists, you can reflect on the joys of being any age, once experienced, all while avoiding being disingenuous, stale, or labored.  Not with any sense of wistfulness or melancholy, mind you; in fact, give Don Henley a swift kick in the balls and make his head shatter into a disco ball grid. I want to love my grown-up neighborhood, but party like my college apartment is on fire. I’d give anything to replay the mistakes of a lovesick teen, then dance it all clean. Make “I Can Change” the best song of the year while you’re at it. Thank you. – MDG

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire (or at least chief songwriter Win Butler) are arguably products of a typical suburban upbringing, and have gone on to become the darlings of a very urban audience. Their ambiguous feelings about where they came from versus where they are now is the album’s recurring theme. Sometimes the suburbs inspire contempt for such a complacent existence, sometimes sweet nostalgia, but ultimately they are a place from which to escape. However, the big city that lures kids away with a siren song of excitement and possibilities is also full of deception, pressure, and a different, crueler kind of conformity (is the place where “the kids all stand with their arms folded tight” the regimented suburbs, or the detached, too-cool city?) And what does a band do with these concepts musically? Like the 600-pound gorilla in the old joke (Arcade Fire consists of seven multi-instrumentalists), anything it wants to. Songs that perhaps could be categorized as R.E.M.-style jangle (“Suburban War”), crunchy 90’s-style alt-rock (“Months of May”), or catchy dance grooves (the mighty “Sprawl II”) are infused with a peculiar, sweeping grandeur by the sheer size of the ensemble blasting them out. The genre-hopping sound is unified by the wistful heartache and clear-eyed detail captured by Butler’s lyrics, which grow stronger with every release. The Arcade Fire uses its big, big sound as a cudgel for an equally vigorous attack on both suburban shallowness and urban pretension, but the attack is always regretful, never hateful — as if they are fighting at the top of their game but against their will. Will Win win?- MI

< 20 – 11 / Accolades Home

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