I took it down to the wire, and I'm glad I did. At least one item here came in over the transom less than two weeks before the end of the year. It was such an amazing year for music that keeping this list to 10 items was painful. I will put a Bandaid on that booboo next time with the Best Of The Rest Of Ten. Without further ado, my 10 faves from 2010.
1. The Walkmen - Lisbon
One of the astonishing things about this record is that despite all the new elements they added to their sound, it still sounds just like The Walkmen. It is at once their most stripped down album and their most embellished (backing vocals! strings!) without losing sight of the all-important emotional connection that is their hallmark. Sure, they're older and wiser enough to laugh at heartbreak in Woe Is Me, but they're never too far from wonderful desolation. Ain't the first time they've been high on my list and probably ain't the last...
2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I admit that I had pretty much counted K. West out but when Lord Lord Lord dropped, I knew something was brewing in Hawaii. And let's face it, the album is a freaking masterpiece - not flawless and certainly the filthiest five star album ever - but great nonetheless. If The College Dropout was his Hunky Dory, featuring an endearingly goofy and down to earth Kanye that we haven't seen since, this is his Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), presenting a dangerously warped persona who sees the world through a shattered mirror. This list of samples demonstrates that a shattered mirror can result in a kaleidoscope of sound. A lot of ink has already been spilled on MBDTF - suffice it to say that it's a defining record of our time and Kanye's best ever.
3. Field Music - Measure
The Brewis Brothers strike again with this overachieving double album. Their smart pop is smarter than ever while rocking harder and getting in touch with their funky side. Zigaboo Modeliste could learn a few tricks from the second line strut of Each Time Is A New Time while Andy Partridge is kicking himself for not coming up with Them That Do Nothing. Deep in side four (speaking in vinyl terms), it gets arty and reflective just as you would hope, mining some of the territory Penguin Cafe Orchestra abandoned to be become chilly perfectionists. Each song on this dense, rich collection is like a perfect little machine and smart songwriters around the globe are likely trying to draw schematics of each one as we speak.
4. Gecko Turner - Gone Down South
Gecko's mix of the sounds of Portugal, Brazil, Memphis, Jamaica, Mali and beyond is one of the must purely human sounds being made on the planet today. To live life without his records would be like denying yourself the warmth of the sun. His last two albums (both released in 2006) are landmarks of this millennium and this one is a close cousin. Perhaps it's a little airier and tossed off but songs like Truly and Cuanta Suerte are like a mainline dose of Vitamin D. Pure joy from start to finish.
5. Sleigh Bells - Treats
These two Brooklyn hipsters married the (often fairly unlistenable) digital hardcore of Atari Teenage Riot and co. to a pop sensibility to make a sound I never knew I needed. Tell 'Em comes on like a rallying cry, the national anthem of LOUD, while Rill Rill hijacks a Funkadelic sample that leavens the whole album straight to sonic nirvana (pun intended). Play it in your car - watch your rearview mirror vibrate and sing along with your family.
6. Breton - Sharing Notes
Between showing the world how to make a DIY printed circuit board and providing remixes for nearly everyone, this South London collective spawned three EP's this year - this is the second (the first was limited to 20 copies and the third is just out) and its grimy electronica features a punky energy that will jolt your system right where you need it. Further listening reveals the dense, surprisingly masterful production (James Murphy could borrow a few leaves from their book) and the almost anthemic song craft that will put these tracks on high-rotation in your temporal lobe.
7. Mount Kimbie - Crooks And Lovers
I have been mostly bemused by the British electronica scene of the past few years, as Dubstep splintered into seemingly endless sub-genres, each even more narrow minded than their progenitor. This duo definitely draws on some of those sounds but their approach is so radical - and musical - that they rise far above the morass. Shards of melody go by, rhythms get almost funky, human voices drift in and out the mix but their compositional skill makes it all hold together. I can imagine those Bang On A Can guys transcribing this stuff and blowing the roof off of Alice Tully Hall.
8. Holly Miranda - The Magician's Private Library
I've probably gone on enough about the enthralling qualities of Holly Miranda's voice and songwriting but, trust me, she's got the goods. Dave Sitek's production elaborates on the dreamscapes inherent in her songs but also mutes her power a bit. Check out NYC Taper's recording of a show from the Bowery Ballroom last spring to hear her raw and uncut, including her devastating take on I'd Rather Go Blind. So perhaps she has yet to make her definitive album but this is still a wonderful introduction to a unique and growing talent.
9. Brian Eno (with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins) - Small Craft On A Milk Sea
Because this is an instrumental album, many have been categorizing it as one of his ambient works. But this series of short, varied pieces has the most in common with his Music For Films albums. As he puts it: "As they stand, they are the mirror-image of silent movies – sound-only movies." In any case, the sheer inventiveness, freedom and mastery displayedhere can stop the breath in your throat. And you may have heard: he actually gets abrasive, delivering a bracing echo of Kings Lead Hat on Two Forms Of Anger.
10. Spoon - Transference
Britt Daniel continues his run as one of the best songwriters ever with gems like Written In Reverse, Mystery Zone, Goodnight Laura, and pretty much every song on this terse, witty and heartfelt album. There is a nice rawness (almost abandon) to some of the cuts but the canny production touches that abound serve as reminders that he and his band mates are in full control. If there is anyone still out there bemoaning the death of rock, they just have not been listening to Spoon.
Next time: Several other delights, including reissues.