Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Andrew G's Top Albums of 2010

1. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach

In a global village with a plastic beach, one man’s litter is a Britpop icon’s inspiration for another modern/post-modern/post-post-modern classic and the future of music. Here we go again: Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz captures the current uneasy mood of the planet in the catchiest way possible just like how he did with Demon Days (2005). The BP Gulf oil spill, continued hand sitting on global warming, and an actual plastic trash island in the Pacific were all headlines I saw scrolling on,,, and Plastic Beach reminds us that these environmental catastrophes stem from a manmade appetite for junk consumerism. Sure sounds like a bummer of an album – but the real talent of Plastic Beach is that it doesn’t lecture to us, but exposes us to the dire environmental and personal consequences of our actions in the most thrilling entertaining way possible that resonates with soul. It doesn’t hurt to have a whole crew of guests including Lou Reed, The Clash, Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, and the up-and-coming Little Dragon populating this plastic global village.

It’s fitting that The Clash take on a big role on the album and on this year’s tour because they did the same thing decades ago and are the key here to Plastic Beach. One of the best tracks off of The Clash’s London Calling was “Lost in the Supermarket” and it’s the spiritual twin of Plastic Beach. Both take an activist stance on larger political issues of the emotional alienation of destructive consumerism while infusing it with heartfelt soul and an undeniable catchy beat.

Similar to London Calling, the music on Plastic Beach is ambitiously all over the map with Gorillaz taking on a dizzying, cosmopolitan array of musical styles that all relate somehow to the central “Plastic Beach” nautical theme. For instance, the bizarrely addictive “Superfast Jellyfish” is a sickeningly sweet kid’s junk seafood commercial jingle. “To Binge” is a cheesy Hawaiian cruise lounge duet whose verses are like love letters dressed up in geopolitical economic terms (“My heart is an economy due to this autonomy I’m just rolling in and caught again”). The groove of “Rhinestone Eyes” bobs up and down like a buoy at sea complete with submarine sounds and features the most ill offbeat rap/singing of Damon Albarn.

Likewise, there are environmental warnings throughout the album that are both grim and playful. The pissy British pub strut of “Pirate Jet” will make you think twice about leaving the tap running and throwing out that plastic cup. “Some Kind of Nature” features Lou Reed obtusely speak-singing about all the neat/scary ways artificial materials have crept into his life while Damon Albarn asks the Lord for forgiveness. That song is not only a highlight of Plastic Beach, but also my favorite track of 2010. The title track explores a similar theme of how junky techno litter (Casio keyboards) becomes unwittingly infused with nature over a seasick rhythmic sway.

Even with these environmental themes, Gorillaz still aims for the heart with real emotion. Songs like “On Melancholy Hill,” “Broken,” and “Empire Ants” are heartbroken and look longingly at an intoxicatingly polluted, yet still beautiful, sunset horizon from the littered beach. Overall, Plastic Beach looks at the bigger picture to remind us how small we are compared to nature where “all we are is dust/stars” or “pixels in far away factories.” Whether we like it or not, due to nature we’re “still connected to the moment where it began” and there is ultimately no escaping the consequences of our actions or that plastic cup in the trash bin.

“Some Kind Of Nature” (play at 480p)
“On Melancholy Hill”
“Rhinestone Eyes” (Live on Letterman)
“Superfast Jellyfish”
“To Binge”
“Empire Ants”
“Pirate Jet”
Awesome Gorillaz concert on Letterman

2. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
On This Is Happening, James Murphy is wearing his influences and his heart on his white blazer’s sleeve more than ever. The starting point for Murphy on this album is taking David Bowie’s Brian Eno produced Berlin trilogy and transplanting it to L.A. He is trading communism and the Berlin Wall for palm trees and swimming pools but still retaining a Cold War level of discontent…and this time it’s personal!

At its core, This Is Happening is LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy making music for dealing with the inexplicable routine crises we all face whether it’s social interactions, anxieties, love lost, personal space, people who need people, places to eat, texts, or finding a home. This stuff IS happening to us everyday. Murphy wrestles with all of these daily struggles and produces an excellent album for gazing introspectively at yourself in either a bathroom mirror or a mirror ball. It’s difficult to not identify with these songs or take away a life lesson from them. The strange yet perfect album opener “Dance Yrself Clean” begins with a sparse beat and Murphy timidly complaining about low expectations and jerky friends before a huge synth bass kicks in 3 minutes later and blows it all away so Murphy has the room to dance away bigger issues like divorces and getting older. It’s one of the 2010’s best moments. The punchy “Drunk Girls” follows as a Roxy Music/Velvet Underground send up that stomps away until what sounds like spaceship lifts off at the end as Murphy debates whether to turn late night club debauchery into something meaningful with the opposite sex.

The album’s middle is the heart of the album and also best showcases Murphy’s influences and emotions. “All I Want” takes Bowie’s “Heroes” guitar riff and a Neu! krautrock beat for a cruise on the autobahn straight to the beach and right behind closed doors for kitchen sink dramas. Murphy then rakes himself over the coals and over a Eno-inspired warped synth pop groove on “I Can Change” hoping to figure how much of himself he wants to invest in a relationship. He uses Morrissey cleverness and sings “never change, never change – is why I fell in love” but then sees that “love is a curse shoved in a hearse” and finally pleads “I can change, I can change if it helps you fall in love.”

From there, Murphy amps up the swagger and decides to take 9 minutes on the chugging “You Wanted A Hit” to make sure we all know what we already know about him which is, when it comes to music, he can do whatever the fuck he wants! Capiche? Then Murphy delivers a blistering disco barnburner on “Pow Pow” that doubles as a rambling self-help pep talk /Metromix takedown (talking about neighborhood restaurants and “Discovery! Discovery! Discovery!”).

This Is Happening then closes with my favorite song “Home” which is perhaps the most cynical optimistic song ever. Its last lines are “If you’re afraid of what you need /Look around you, you’re surrounded/It won’t get any better.” It refuses to wish things to be better and instead takes an honest unflinching look at how to fix the status quo yourself. The song’s Talking Heads groove and poignant haunting lyrics is representative of how This Is Happening is, beat for beat and word for word, LCD Soundsystem’s best album yet.

“Dance Yrself Clean”
“All I Want”
“I Can Change” (live on UK TV)
“Pow Pow”
“Drunk Girls” (video directed by Spike Jonez)

3. Sleigh Bells, Treats

In pop music, there’s always that weird uncomfortable territory where teenybop pop stars tease or flirt with darker pervy preferences of human nature in hopes to seem edgier or “all grown up” in order to refresh their relevancy and expand their audience. Think of Britney Spears 10 years ago with the python wrapped around her at the VMA’s, Katy Perry showing her boobs to Elmo this year, or Miley Cyrus skanking it up before being able to legally vote. While these teenypop stars interject their sexuality and uneasy 'maturity' into the public discourse for tabloid coverage, there are a real life consequences and tolls taken. Disney teen star Demi Lovato going to rehab after doing a bunch of coke at a Neon Indian show, Miley exposed for smoking hallucinogenics, or Perez Hilton possibly facing criminal child pornography charges for posting panties-less pictures of Miley (Miley again :/ ). In response, Sleigh Bells, on their debut Treats, zero in on this dark side of teenybop and blow-it-the-fuck-up.

Groups like Sleigh Bells, Crystal Castles, Robyn, and even Lady Gaga make exciting pop music for adults by adults without having to wade into those murky pervy waters in order to sell lame Disney music. It’s totally fitting that Sleigh Bells singer Alexis Kraus was a member of a failed girl group and a studio session musician for Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan. It’s even more fitting that Kraus teams up with hardcore metal guitarist Derek Miller to make a 30 minute album with 11 knockout tracks that decimate everything in earshot leaving you with blown eardrums, barely conscious, and seeing stars.

Treats blasts addicting pop music through heavy metal guitar amps way past the point of distortion and goes from girly giddy to downright dangerous. It’s the equivalent of Miley Cyrus on a “bad trip” running around with a bazooka eating napalm cotton candy and relentlessly pounding the listener’s head into a speaker while cheerleaders cheer on. The heavy artillery music only lets up momentarily to ask “Wait, did I forget my sunglasses? Nope…got’em! :)” (“Kids”), compliment your braces (“Rill Rill”), or give a blood curdling shriek (“Kids” and “A/B Machines”). Although this sounds frightening, Sleigh Bells is aware of how ridiculous their music is and have a sense of humor about it. Examples would be how absurdly startling “Tell’em” purposely is with its guitars firing like cannons, the kids samples (“let’s talk about boys!”) on “Kids,” and the last part of the otherwise restrained “Infinity Guitars” where the monster riff and beat kicks down the door while blowing up the house. Treats is also a perfect summer party album too. The melodic “Rill Rill” tones down the distortion with an old Funkadelic sample for a still massive sounding summer jam of 2010 that lays out poolside. Treats ends with it’s title track that is a total metal slowburn that sounds like Black Sabbath laying Britney Spears’ career to rest. All in all, Sleigh Bells probe and explode teen pop, metal, and club music while coolly strutting above it all like the master hitmen pop artists they are.

“Rill Rill”
“Infinity Guitars” (video)
“Crown On The Ground”
“Rhythm Riot”

4. Vampire Weekend, Contra

Vampire Weekend cannot help that they’re upper crust members of the “finer things club.” After their debut, a lot of the criticism or fatigue regarding Vampire Weekend focused on this and pigeonholed the band as being ivy leaguers riding blog hype by copping Paul Simon copping African guitar lines and rhythms. Hell, I even remember an article in the Financial Times talking about Vampire Weekend’s debut. Nothing says hip indie more than checking my investment portfolio and discovering Vampire Weekend on the same page!

Now with Contra, Vampire Weekend does not apologize for coming off like a cross between “Gossip Girl,” “Frasier,” and “Silver Spoons.” Instead, they surprise everyone by showing intelligence, self awareness, and a new vulnerability as well as musical depth behind their refined cosmopolitan palates that was not as apparent on their debut. This sharpened focus on vulnerable emotion comes across right away on album opener “Horchata” with its chorus “Here comes a feeling you thought you forgotten.” Contra’s songs are filled with characters with relatable insecurities and desires. They experience class conscious anxiety on “Taxi Cab,” regret over missed opportunities on “Giving Up The Gun,” awkward mischief in “Diplomat’s Son,” and suspicion in their relationships and just wanting “good schools and friends with pools” on “I Think UR A Contra.” It all sounds like a perfect soundtrack to potentially epic “coming of age” episode of “Gossip Girl” where the cast return to the Upper East Side from a semester abroad.

Musically, Contra is multiple time zones ahead of their debut. The band retains their spiky guitar pop and classical flair but adds synths and electronic beats that create grooves and vast soundscapes in the songs. In particular, Contra’s last three songs (“Giving Up The Gun” “Diplomat’s Son” “I Think UR A Contra”) really capture the band’s growth and musical ambition. The secret weapon to Contra is keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij who produced the album and is also the mastermind behind the electro club pop group Discovery. A lot of Contra’s sonic color and electronic vibrancy can be traced back Discovery’s irresistible album LP (2009). Overall, Vampire Weekend seems to be turning into the American version of Blur (another worldly band criticized for being upper class). Likewise, Contra seems to be their version of Blur’s Think Tank (2003) where they use world music and electronic influences to make a dynamic soulful pop album. Contra is the kind of achievement that should be placed above the band’s higher tax bracket and Ivy League diplomas.

“Giving Up The Gun”
“Diplomat’s Son”
“I Think UR A Contra”
“Taxi Cab”

5. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

After World War II, real estate developer William Levitt created what became the modern suburbia prototype with Levittown in New York. The Levittown mass-produced homes and monotonous layout were criticized as being "a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.” The attempt to “escape” this crushing conformity is what Arcade Fire’s epic album, The Suburbs, is all about as kids in the album are getting into buses and cars driving around “longing to be free.”

But Arcade Fire sees suburban sprawl not just happening in real estate terms, but also creeping into people’s personal lives as a metaphor for growing up and losing your youth. Bit by bit, graduating, friends moving away, getting a job, married, having kids it will happen ready or not. The “suburban” conformity may be great for efficient markets and getting that good job, but it also snuffs out the more unique challenging complex aspects of the human experience. The excellent M83/Bat For Lashes-esque “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) sees this literal suburban sprawl and the personal emotional sprawl in the pressure to “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock” while “dead shopping malls rise like mountains.” TGIFridays is probably not the band’s first choice to eat on tour. While the businessman may want you to “punch the clock” and drink Arcade Fire’s blood “like the art schools kids said they would” (“Ready To Start”), Arcade Fire also criticizes, on “Rococo” and “Month of May,” those same art school kids with “their arms folded tight” and their strict expectations and narrow worldview. It seems the unfortunate end result of caving into the pressures of these “sprawls” is, as the Dylan/The Band inspired title track puts it, “moving past the feeling” on the surface “but in dreams…still screaming.”

Other thematic “sprawls” that The Suburbs looks at is time and technology. “Deep Blue” uses the 1990’s chess game where the Deep Blue computer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov as a way to show technology infiltrating into the suburbs making us more isolated and detached. “We Used To Wait” discusses how before the “flashing lights” of a smartphone “settled into his brain,” singer Win Butler had the time to figure out his true feelings and write them down. The song also deals the virtue of waiting for something even if it never came. Similarly, the quiet country ditty “Wasted Hours” is about the importance of taking your time to figure out what you want in life. Earlier this year, the New York Times had an article on “Emerging Adulthood” where more young adults today are “growing up” later compared to previous generations and are instead taking the time to figure what life they want to live. The Suburbs is the quintessential “emerging adult” album. It sees the isolating path and pressures that come from having all your peers “grow up” at different rates, particularly on “Suburban War.” But ultimately, Arcade Fire wants you to not forget all the possibilities in life and to hold on to the time when you felt those possibilities were real because they still are.

“The Suburbs”

“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
“Suburban War”
“Deep Blue”
“We Used To Wait”

6. Marnie Stern, Marnie Stern

After seeing Marnie Stern live, a friend of mine called the performance “ACDC's ‘Thunderstruck’ meets ‘Sex And The City.’” He meant it as a criticism but I see it as a spot on description of her awesomeness. On her self titled album, Marnie Stern is making some of the most thrilling and amazing guitar rock this year. Marnie is doing this while redefining what it means to be a woman in rock. Though her music has muscle, it retains and confidently expresses her femininity on matters such as relationships and loss. Most importantly, her rocking does not distract from her solid songwriting. She sings and slays on the guitar in a way that’s sassy, wild, experimental, and smart going from yelling yelps to melodic introspective singing. Marnie’s guitar playing and Zach Hill’s drumming are frantic,but catchy, causing the tunes to come at you sideways like Pavement at their Wowee Zowee poppy weirdest.

Album opener “For Ash” bursts out like a shitstorm of guitars and layered vocals. The melodies are barely holding inside the whirlwind momentum of the song. The album’s guitar rock pinnacle is the blistering “Gimme” with its insane guitar stabs and lines “Things are different in the body/ Things are different in the city! AWWWW Uh!” Another song “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black” also blasts and propels at a breakneck physics-defying pace. Furthermore, these outrageous rocks songs are placed next to hushed melodic songs like “Transparency Is The New Mystery” and “The Things You Noticed.” Marnie Stern has also shown improvement with this album. It is a heck of a lot more tuneful and layered than her last album which received a lot more attention in the press.

Overall, Marnie Stern breaks the conventional “pop star” or “quiet acoustic singer/songwriter” molds that female rockers typically have succumbed to in order to express themselves. Here, horizons are expanded, glass ceilings are shattered, and Marnie demonstrates how to be both girly and wildly innovative with authority. Your move next, Taylor Swift….

"For Ash"
"Transparency Is The New Mystery"
"Female Guitar Players Are The New Black"
"Cinco De Mayo"

7. Grinderman, Grinderman 2

Who would have thought Kanye West would have so much in common with the moody goth-punk icon Nick Cave this year? Cave, with his sharp literate wit and his band Grinderman, lacerates the “dark twisted fantasies” of mid-life crisis men that involve young pouty “Lolitas” and their own mortality. Of course, Grinderman include themselves as targets of their own dark satire by holding themselves out as a cross between a pervy uncle and Joaquin Phoenix at his hairiest and most disheveled. Though, the knowing winks to their wacked yet sophisticated middle school humor (there’s a song called “Worm Tamer,” and lyrics about sticking their fingers in “biscuit jars,” and pleading with a “Lolita,” “hey, hey listen don’t do that on the carpet”) come uncomfortably late, if at all.

Grinderman 2’s ridiculous humor is complicated by Grinderman’s noisy menacing garage rock and heavy understanding of the dark desperateness that comes with these seedy decadent desires. On the explosive “Evil” Cave cries out “Who needs the TV? You are my TV! Who needs the record player? You are my record player! Cling to me baby in this rented room…. Let me protect you from what is evil.” He’s also wondering out loud on “When My Baby Comes” if there’s something more than “wasting lives on booze and drugs and husbands and wives and making money?” From these questions and concerns, come misguided answers such as putting a disturbed girl, who’s “got little gun, sitting in the bathtub, sucking her thumb,” on the same pedestal as a religious icon or, on “Kitchenette,” hitting on a housewife with “Oprah Winfrey on plasma screen” while her tippy toeing kids, who Cave says are “the ugliest fucking kids I’ve ever seen,” make “it hard to relax” causing a fed up Cave to declare “I got to get my act together.” However, Grinderman sees the potential for something redeeming, noble to come out of all these dark impulses on “Palaces of Montezuma” which is their tribute to a devotion to another.

Likewise, Grinderman’s messy garage sound matches and enhances the uneasiness Cave delivers in his lyrics. The threatening, squealing, and squelching guitars and organ come out of nowhere like horror show sound effects. The mangled guitars on this album produce some of the most aggressive and distorted sounds this year.

All of Grinderman’s noise acknowledges the dark, lustful, violent, primal, and absurd impulses in people. Yet, contrast that to the weary ballad “What I Know,” with its constant soft unsettling static buzz, which seems to recognize that these impulses haunt us all and are life’s constant companions. Grinderman argues that it’s best to live with these impulses, expose them, and not be slaved to them either privately or publicly. Accepting this seems to be the only way, as closing song “Bellringer Blues says,” to being a “sole/soul survivor.”

"When My Baby Comes"
"Kitchenette" (totally badass performance on foreign TV)
"Palaces of Montezuma"
"Worm Tamer"
"What I Know"

8. Robyn, Body Talk Pts. 1-3

The greatness of Robyn’s Body Talk Pts. 1-3 is similar to the show “Glee” at its very best. Both, on their face, may seem like conventional pop or a conventional high school drama, but underneath the gloss there is a sharp wit, a subversive sense of humor, and an inclusive message for all the misfits. Just take a listen to “Include Me Out” which may contain the most universal shout outs in recorded pop history: first, she give props to the mamas and the grannies who are the “pillars of the family” and then requests “a beat for all of my watchamacallits/Doing whatever and with whoever they like?”

Robyn is also a lot like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy where both use their experience and encyclopedic knowledge of electronic dance/pop music to craft their fine tunes. Furthermore, in terms of electronic dance pop, Robyn is doing a better Hot Chip than Hot Chip is this year on tracks like “Stars 4 Ever,” “Dancehall Queen,” and “Fembot” (whose last minute may be one of the most beautiful moments of 2010).

Most importantly, Body Talk’s charm is Robyn’s charismatic personality which is funky, spunky, and relatable. The emotional complexity of songs like the heartfelt “Hang With Me,” the oddly sympathetic “Call Your Girlfriend,” “Get Myself Together,” and the mammoth dancefloor torch burner “Dancing on My Own” keep you dancing while you bawl. Overall, it’s great to see progressive smart pop getting more attention this year from both the masses and the hipsters.

"Dancing On My Own"

"Include Me Out"
"Call Your Girlfriend"
"Hang With Me"

8. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“OMG I h8 Kanye! >:( Did U C what he did 2 Taylor Swift, George W. Bush, and Matt Lauer???!! UGGHHH!!!” This has been the concise sentiment towards Kanye West from just about every casual Top 40 radio listener this last year and I don’t know what the big deal is. Maybe it’s because I grew up being a Britpop fan where Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker rocketed to superstardom after crashing Michael Jackson’s UK award show performance and Oasis’s Liam Gallagher would pretend to stick his Brit award up his arse on stage. (That doesn’t even take into account the Grammy ODB/Shawn Colvin and “Soy Bomb” disasters which make Kanye’s Taylor Swift debacle sound like a courteous, relevant, constructive criticism.) Do we want our pop stars to be sweet and comforting like milk and cookies? Do we want Kanye West to be Will Smith?! Even the Welsh psychedelic pop group Super Furry Animals wondered if Will Smith was human on their song “Fragile Happiness” and asked: “Does Will Smith lie? Does he ever break down and cry?”

We know that Kanye is human through and through and nothing shows that more than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album is majestic, medieval, and plays out like a classical Greek or Shakespearian tragedy on hubris and pussy. Kanye dives into the dark decadent side of fame, partying, and sex while being merciless towards all his faults. Similar to Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, it’s darkly honest while being funny and cutting all at once. One of the first introductions to this album was “Runaway” where Kanye basically calls himself out as a “douchebag,” “asshole,” and “scumbag” and raps about emailing girls pictures of his dick – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg on the album. “Blame Game” may be the culmination of his blunt honesty with its uncomfortable lyrics about the end a relationship being rapped through distorted vocals backed by a haunting Aphex Twin piano sample.

The music is ambitious and seems to pursue that medieval vibe that heavy metal, prog rock, and classical music go after. Kanye steals the melody from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” puts it over a “Nightrider” beat on “Hell Of A Life,” and uses a buzz saw synth that sounds like a heavy metal guitar. “Power” uses a King Crimson sample from prog rock classic “21st Century Schizoid Man” to sound just like what that song title suggests. Prog rock guitars also grind away on “Gorgeous.” Meanwhile, the simple piano lines on “Runaway” and “Blame Game” bring elegance to the nastiness.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ends with Kanye being lost in the woods and putting himself back together. Over a remixed Bon Iver’s “Woods,” a Gil Scott Heron sample asks “Who will survive in America?” This year Kanye barely did, but to quote the man himself from a few years back “now that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is proof of that.

"Runaway" (live on SNL)

"Power" (live on SNL)
"Blame Game"
"Devil In A New Dress"
"Runaway" Full Length Film

9. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Before Today

SoCal’s Ariel Pink is the master lo-fi abstract/expressionist pop artist of rock clichés. Before Today feels like a series psychedelic flashbacks to not only the forgotten classics on 1970’s lite FM radio, but everything from that era. The mellow synth vibe of classic yacht rock of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers melts into metal, R&B, new wave, and cheesy lounge pop influences. This spiked sonic fondue is then seasoned to taste with what seems like random phone calls, LA cop TV show themes, Halloween sound effects, monkey noises, and surgery saws. The finished fermented product is weirdo pop bliss. This sonic concoction is further tripped out with low budget recording style which makes these pop hallucinations more weird, creepy, and authentic. It’s like how the puppets in the original Star Wars movies were way more frightening than the computer generated crap in the recent prequels.

Ariel gives a manic performance in these tunes where he goes from being incomprehensible to belting his heart out on lucid choruses in songs like the roller rink dream of “Round And Round” and “Can’t Hear My Eyes” (the greatest soft rock ballad that’s 30 years too late). Throughout Before Today, Ariel layers and obscures his vocals but always wraps them into undeniable melodies. “Beverly Kills” opens with police radio dialogue and has falsetto voices all over the place before its melody glides over Rodeo Drive or the Sunset Strip like the opening credits for some west coast cop drama. “Fright Night (Nevermore)” has Ariel spooking out his vocals and synths as if Lionel Ritchie lived in a haunted house. Likewise, “L’estat (Acc. To The Widow’s Maid)” may be Ariel Pink’s fried take on Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” Meanwhile, “Butthouse Blondies” and “Little Wing” combine meathead metal with Mercury Rev and comes out like The Darkness if they had special needs. I can only hope we are lucky enough to hear an Ariel Pink cover of the “Escape (‘Do you like Pina Coladas?’)” song. All in all, Ariel Pink’s Before Today feels like the work of misunderstood eccentric pop genius like a current day Captain Beefheart, Beck, or the work a more experienced MGMT will make in the future.

"Round And Round"
"Beverly Kills"
"Can't Hear My Eyes"
"Fright Night (Nevermore)"
"Butthouse Blondies"

10. Matthew Dear, Black City

Black City begins with a slooow nighttime drift in a cab with “Honey.” It’s a perfect setup for great urban nocturnal dance album. The album sounds like LCD Soundsystem at their weird Bowiest or Bowie at his most Bowiest in Berlin. Black City also takes cues from the ambient soul of TV On The Radio, the claustrophobic dread of Portishead, and the creepy experimenting of the Liars. Songs on the album sink in and out of consciousness – it’s like dancing and nodding off at the same time. For example, a song like “Slowdance” has a beat that sounds like it has a sleepy Tourette’s syndrome while “You Put A Smell On Me” is just a straight nasty predatory synth jam that you’d play at 3am on the dance floor while you do your dirty business. “Little People (Black City)” is 9 minute nightmare cruise that is being propelled into disco hell with each hit of the cowbell. After all this nastiness, Matthew Dear tries to redeem himself with the electro trash gospel of “Shortwave” that has layered vocals that sounds like TV On The Radio.

Dear’s vocals are the odd focal point/narrative of the album. His voice goes from distorted herky jerky to a low “Bowie on cough syrup” baritone to a high voice that should be coming out of a hand puppet. It’s like his vocals on Black City are under the supervision of some witness protection program. These manipulated vocals heighten the overall paranoid libido and deranged lust at the heart of Black City.

Although Matthew Dear is in full euro creep mode on the album, he is always self aware and has an uneasy sense of doom and tiredness amongst all the sleaze. Fittingly enough, Black City ends with Matthew Dear hospitalized looking for more surgeries (“More Surgery”) and facing the glitchy break of dawn (“Gem”).

"You Put A Smell On Me"
"Little People (Black City)"
"I Can't Feel"

10. of Montreal, False Priest

It’s hard to think of a vocal performance this year that matches the far out effort Kevin Barnes put into of Montreal’s False Priest. Barnes puts it all out on the line and goes from a chatty recount of first meeting his ex to wailing on his family history to prep school prim and proper to Prince pouty to face in the gutter depressed to knocking off the Beatles to being “a black man living in a Chicago (?!).” He finally ends False Priest by going off his meds and giving a distorted anti-religion sermon on loving your neighbor. This impressively schizoid and humorous performance is fitting for these songs which explore the thin line separating lovers from being brutal enemies. On this topic, Barnes airs all the dirty laundry and gets straight up uncomfortably and entertainingly candid. He keeps absurdly going forward and backing up over all the details of broken relationships. It’s like that scene in "Austin Powers" where the Austin gets his motor cart stuck in the hallway.

Good thing False Priest’s tunes match the thrill of Barnes vocals. of Montreal ambitiously layer their diverse music styles with catchy melodies and dynamic grooves. Tightly plucked bass grooves set the scene underneath numerous cheesy synths and indie guitar rock to create what sounds like a prog/psychedelic approach to doing 1970’s soft rock with a R&B/soul conviction. It’s like Prince and the Flaming Lips coming together to do a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s that Lady?” Furthermore, producer extraordinaire Jon Brion lends a guiding hand to False Priest and gives it ornate orchestral flourishes. Barnes vocals and the music come together perfectly on tracks like the autobiographical “Godly Intersex,” the outrageous synth overload of “Hydra Fancies” and the badass funk burner of “Girl Named Hello” where Barnes repeats the line “If I treated someone else the way I treat myself, I’d be in jaaAaaaAail! …just kidding, yo!” Moreover, the duets with Solange Knowles (“Sex Karma”) and Janelle Monae (“Enemy Gene”) are some of the catchiest progressive pop songs of 2010. Overall, False Priest captures Barnes turning his low point personal frustrations into a truly unique and impressive sonic pop adventure.

"Godly Intersex"
"Girl Named Hello"
"Hydra Fancies"
"Sex Karma"
"Do You Mutilate"

10. MGMT, Congratulations

No album frustrated me more this year than Congratulations. At first, I thought it was god awful and made me feel weird. There were no hooks or choruses on the entire album. Congratulations felt like walking into an amateur conceptual film by a struggling art student half way through: all you get is some sort of nonsensical conclusion after having no idea what the plot was.

However, after multiple listens the rewards of Congratulations reveal themselves. A skilled listener should applaud how purposely awful MGMT made this album and all the strange turns they took that would have fair-weather fans clawing, tweeting, status updating their way off this sinking ship. On Congratulations, MGMT purposely avoided the electro pop hooks that made Oracular Spectacular so successful. Instead, Congratulations is a sci-fi psychedelic (sci-fi-delic?) nightmare about post-fame life that has odd humor woven throughout the tracks. The vocals are still silly and bratty, but are now weary.

Also, there are several allusions on Congratulations to rock history. Brian Eno, Dan Tracey of UK punk group Television Personalities get name checked and MGMT get Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 (MGMT’s idols) to produce the album. The multipart “Siberian Breaks” plays out like The Who’s rock opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” and a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song. “Flash Delirium” is schizoid glam rock with a Bowie song buried in there somewhere. “Someone’s Missing” begins with a creepy quiet tone before building up and bursting into a Jackson 5 Motown number. “I Found A Whistle” is a dangerous acoustic strummer played against a dizzying psychedelic snowstorm that sounds like Spiritualized. MGMT seem to be looking back at rock history and their favorite groups to come to terms with their success, feeling like they’re weirder than most of their fans realize. The band’s post-fame grappling is clear on “Siberian Breaks,” where MGMT put their twist on The Who’s “My Generation” lyric and say “Hope I die before I get sold.” Moreover, the laid back title track that closes the album feels like an epitaph, sounds like The Band, and begins with being “dead in the water.” The song explores the weirdness of being taken care of as a “rock star” but ultimately decides to stretch out their arms and “soak up the congratulations.” Basically, turning life after becoming famous into an existential crisis. It’ll be real interesting to see where MGMT go from here.

"Flash Delirium"
"I Found A Whistle"
"Someone's Missing"
"Siberian Breaks"

2010 Album Commentary: The National, High Violet

High Violet is not in my top ten, but I wanted to write about it not only as excuse to show off this picture of The National in the computer lab at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library, but because it is a solid album with faults that I’m still wrapping my head around. Too frequently, I found singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics too abstract, too stark and the music to be too steely and gray. It doesn’t have the lived-in quality and minimalist orchestral sound that made their previous albums more intimate. More importantly, High Violet’s lyrics are not rooted in the everyday mundane details and self conscious semi-pervy personal thoughts that gave The National’s excellent albums Boxer and Alligator their dark honest wit and emotional weight. The exceptions to this would be “Lemonworld” and “Conversation 16” which build on The National’s strengths and are some of the best songs the band has ever done musically and lyrically. It’s great The National are getting the attention and crowd they deserve, but they need to take a lesson from Nick Cave and Grinderman and be reminded that they are their best when delivering heavy emotion with understated dark humor.


"Conversation 16"

Honorable Mentions:
Sufjan Stevens, Age of Adz
Spoon, Transference
Cornershop, Judy Sucks A Lemon For Breakfast
Hot Chip, One Life Stand
Delorean, Subiza
Bryan Ferry, Olympia
Wolf Parade, Expo 86
Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles II

(Note: Beach House's Teen Dream was #6 on my 2009 list)

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