The best of times, the BLURST of times: ATR Music 2010

This was a long, good year. So long, in fact that I completely forgot several of my favorite albums of the last 12 months or so were, in fact, released in the last 12 months. So long, in fact that I completely forgot to write in my blog most days/weeks. But it was a good year! And when I look back on the music that came out, it’s even a better music year than I thought it was upon first reflection.

When I began to compile this list in my head, I could only think of three ironclad, must-list albums. Then I looked at release dates and that list expanded to five or six. Then I looked harder and although the list of ironclad best-of-2010 albums didn’t grow much more, the quality of 2010 releases surprised me. Again, due to the brain length (the perceived time elapsed within a given amount of real time) of 2010, it feels like I’ve been listening to some of these albums (especially Hot Chip’s release, which I would have guessed came out in winter of 2009 had you quizzed me) for well more than a year.

But the good news is this list was easy. Very easy. Those three ironclad albums top this list and the rest just shake out behind them. And since it was my memory that was lacking this year, but that same poor memory provided me the best albums of the year quickly and without much reflection, let’s rank these top 15 albums along with the top 15 memories in a given person’s life (one could argue).

15. The “playing tag at recess” album: Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away

It goes to show the depth of the quality of 2010 albums that the newest album by perhaps my favorite singer/songwriter at the moment, Josh Ritter, just barely cracks the list. “So Runs” is a very solid album, with the usual sweeping, epically dreamy highlights of a Ritter album (here, “Change of Time,” “The Curse,” the rollicky “Rattling Locks”), but altogether not much different from his last, “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.” That’s not really a bad thing, mind you.

14. The “asking the first girlfriend/boyfriend out” album: Gayngs – Relayted

This rather odd, noisy, awkward album (just like teenage dating!) is categorized as trip hop, but has a bit of a DNTEL aesthetic to it. The band’s sound is a bit like DNTEL would have been if it had existed in the 1980s and did The Postal Service with George Michael instead of Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard. It’s kind of awesome if you can deal with the weirdness.

13. The “buying your first car” album: Menomena – Mines

The self-styled weirdo rockers in Portland-based Menomena (pronounce like it rhymes with phenomena) have a winner in their sophomore effort, with more epic, strange and beautiful songs like the ones on previously ATR’d “Friend and Foe.” Try “TAOS” and “Dirty Cartoons” for exemplary examples.

12. The “youthful roadtrips” album: LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

Much like the Josh Ritter and Black Keys albums this year, the James Murphy album feels like more of the same from the electropop legend. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s not exactly blowing my mind either. Still, when you want to get a party moving, you could do worse than to switch on the LCDS.

11. The “I’m done with school forever” album: The Dead Weather – Sea of Cowards

I’m a fan of Jack White. But I’m mostly a fan of Jack White at his most dark and twisted. Thankfully for me, he formed The Dead Weather, which is sort of like the anti-Raconteurs: Not even a slight nod to radio-friendliness. If you want an example of Jack at his most twisted, check out “I’m Mad,” which has become a bit of an inside joke with me and my lady. 

10. The “Christmas morning at age 5” album: The New Pornographers – Together

Yet another example of a band that just does what it does and does it excellently, the Canadian indie equivalent of the Wu-Tang Clan (in size, not temperament) drops another sing-along gem in “Together.” From the swelling opening track “Moves” (which I swore was called “These Things Get Louder” for the first 10 listens or so) to the … well, swelling closing track, “We End Up Together,” it’s a winner. Team Carl Newman reporting.

9. The “21st birthday” album: Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

Janelle’s long, long, LONG-awaited debut LP pretty much cemented her as this generation’s female answer to Prince: Funky, inventive, sometimes confusing but always fantastically enjoyable. Drink in the groove of “Tightrope” for radio-friendliness, but the swinging and ominous “Come Alive (The War of the Roses)” is the real star of this unforgettable album.

8. The “seeing your kid take his first steps” album: Broken Bells – Broken Bells

The lead singer of The Shins goes to DJ Danger Mouse for the Gnarls Barkley treatment and comes away with something almost as cool. While the synthesis between DJ and vocal talent isn’t as seamless as it was with Cee-Lo (on Broken Bells, there are some “Shins-y” tracks and there are some “Mouse-y” tracks), it’s nonetheless a satisfying and endlessly catchy listen.

7. The “first time … in bed” album: Lightspeed Champion – Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You

The former Test Icicles bassist already scored the ATR album of the year with his debut, “Falling Off the Lavender Bridge,” so it was inevitable that I was looking forward to his next project. Somehow, though, the release of “Life Is Sweet!” escaped my notice for nearly a month before I finally got a hold of it early this year. It’s not quite as mind-blowing as the first one, but the indie darling from England continues apace on his quest to become the most unlikely alt.country star of all time.

6. The “first trip abroad” album: The Roots – How I Got Over

In a year that saw The Roots become easily the finest late-show house band ever, the hip-hop legends continued to work on material and tour as well. I had two theories about the band taking the “Late Show” gig: Either they would basically stop making albums or they would use the nightly practice to become even tighter as a band and the creative process would bear wonderful new fruit. As hip-hop fans can thankfully attest, “How I Got Over,” easily the group’s best release in about a decade, is evidence of the latter theory being proven.

5. The “asking/being asked to get married” album: Hot Chip – One Life Stand

The United Kingdom’s best real-life imitation of that scene from “Revenge of the Nerds” where the nerds come together in an orgy of electronic and dance music delivers yet another awesome album from front to back. I used to think LCD Soundsystem was as close to electro-pop perfection as humanity could get. Now I’m pretty certain Hot Chip does it even better.

4. The “finding out your first grandchild has been born” album: Big K.R.I.T. – K.R.I.T. Wus Here

I know I’m prone to hyperbole so I don’t blame you if you don’t take me seriously when I make statements like this, but here goes anyway: K.R.I.T.’s talent as a rapper AND producer at this early stage of the Mississippi native’s career is unparalleled. Kanye took longer to develop. 9th Wonder took longer and he can’t rap. Pete Rock took a while and he can’t rap either. I actually watched a video where 9th is in the studio with K.R.I.T. listening to the youngster’s tracks and periodically shaking his head in amazement. Google K.R.I.T. and download everything you can find of his if you’re a fan of hip-hop. He’s 23. Just keep that in mind while you listen to his soul-bearing lyrics and masterful beats.

3. The “getting your first pet” album: Spoon – Transference

A new Spoon album is pretty much guaranteed an ATR top-three finish and “Transference” earns it. I must admit, though, that the latest release from my absolute favorite band didn’t hit me as immediately as the last few, and I didn’t feel that thunderstruck, amazed dumbness with any of the tracks that I felt with several from “Ga^5” or “Gimme Fiction,” for example. BUT that said, I will say it’s a wonderfully tight and consistently awesome album. Rather than being blown away by any single track, the cohesion of the songs as a unit makes me want to listen to the whole album any time I hear any of the songs played. That’s always a good sign.

2. The “wedding day” album: Ted Leo + Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks

Ted Leo is pretty much amazing and “Brutalist Bricks” has taken its place upon the top of Mr. Leo’s heap of amazing work for me. The energy, the attention to detail, the wordplay, the tunefulness, the track order, it’s all nearly perfect. Ted Leo’s lack of universal acclaim and household name status is a good argument against the existence of god, as far as I’m concerned. This should be a platinum album.

1. The “firstborn” album: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I could write a dissertation on this album. I could write another three on Mr. West himself. I’ve been a fan of his since before his first major label release, a fan of his since he could only dream of meeting – much less working with – Jay-Z, and I’ve admired him not only for his successes, but also for his failures. His vision, for instance, in creating the slapped-together “808s & Heartbreaks” could only be applauded as one of those delusional-yet-grand piques of an arrogant genius, no matter how one felt about the actual finished product. The fact that ANY of those songs were even remotely good, let alone the couple transcendent ones, is an amazing feat. With “Fantasy,” Kanye unleashes the full force of his arrogance, his genius, his vulnerability, his insecurities, his pain, his joy … and it’s not all good.

Indeed, several of the tracks are somewhat forgettable or regrettably staffed (really we didn’t need TWO nearly identical verses on separate songs from Rick Ross, nor did we need two appearances from the same indie band, Bon Iver [at least mix it up, go get Adam Levine again or something]), but they all display the same GRANDNESS. Kanye clearly wrote every one of these songs with BIGNESS in mind: Arenas, pumping PA systems, blaring speakers at fashion shows, BIG SHIT POPPIN’. And to further emphasize the hugeness of his intentions, he created a half-hour long featurette/video/album sampler that revolved around his courtship of an earthbound (and scantily clad) phoenix and it was seriously SO great you guys. I thought it was a dumb idea when I heard about it, but it was so good that it totally won me over. In the weeks leading up to the LP’s release, I must have watched “Runaway” 10 times.

If you already hate Kanye, this won’t win you over. If you think he’s stupid and self-aggrandizing and you’re tired of his antics, I can’t say anything that will change your mind about that. But what I would say is that is all part of who he is, for better or for worse, and ultimately he can interrupt as many award show speeches as he wants as long as he continues to create era-defining, ahead-of-the-curve, selfless, selfish, genius level music and art. I mentioned Prince earlier in reference to Janelle Monae, but perhaps Kanye is the better analogy to the Purple One. Kanye’s a box of paradoxes and weird behaviors and strange ideas and he creates this massively popular music that seems to polarize people: He refuses to be ignored. He’s like the black Elvis. Just don’t call him a black Beatle.

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