by Jason Hicks
2010 wasn't a particularly strong year in terms of music, or perhaps anything else for that matter, but as usual there were some bright spots. It seemed that many of them came from the hip hop/rap camp, which had several notable releases. Beyond the two featured here, The Roots and Kanye West also turned in worthy efforts and crossover R&B artist Cee-Lo delivered the single of the year. Other than that, the other big trends were 60s garage rock revisions and dance rock storming the stage and nabbing my top two spots. So without further ado here are my picks for best of the year.
10. Surfer Blood- Astro Coast
Surfer Blood's music instantly conjures a myriad of associations: a less noisy Sonic Youth, a more delicate Pixies, or the obvious comparison to a rework of 60s surf rock as filtered through the sensibilities of a group of kids that grew up listening to indie rock. But first and foremost what Astro Coast delivers in spades is undeniable hooks and reverby guitar goodness. But as the gaping shark mouth on the album cover indicates, it isn't always fun and games at the beach. A melancholy undercurrent runs through many of the songs and lyrical allusions to failed relationships and alcoholism contrast sharply with the sunny vocals and production. While Surfer Blood never manage to quite outshine their influences, Astro Coast is a very promising debut and their pop instincts are rock solid, so much so that there really is no filler to be found here. In fact, their music seems to be more substantial than that of some of their wildly successful peers, Vampire Weekend and Silversun Pickups spring to mind, and with a little luck they'll be lapping those bands in no time.
9. Janelle Monáe- The Archandroid
Sometimes an album comes along that is so unique that it completely transcends genre to create something new, and The Archandroid falls squarely in that category. Beyond the artifice of a concept inspired loosely by Fritz Lang's landmark silent film Metropolis and the writings of Philip K. Dick, Janelle Monáe's debut full length squeezes classical, hip hop, jazz, psychedelic funk and even Broadway showtunes all under the ostentatious banner of R&B. Then there's Monáe's voice, which is a finely tuned instrument that recalls the purity of the great Sarah Vaughan. With its out there futurist concept, Monáe's voice and a dizzying array of styles and moods, The Archandroid remains novel and engaging throughout its 68 minute run time. In fact its scope is so broad that by the time indie rockers Of Montreal take over late in the album for "Make the Bus", it doesn't even seem like a left field collaboration. Such an ambitious and creative work just cannot be ignored. Erykah Badu, you have your work cut out for you.
8. Das Racist- Sit Down, Man
Sure Das Racist is mostly a joke, but when the punchlines flow as fast and furious as they do throughout this Brooklyn based group's second mixtape of the year, it's hard not to take the guys seriously. Throwing out references from Beetlejuice to Fleet Foxes to Dizzee Rascal, sometimes in the same line, Das Racist is hyper-aware, even breaking the third wall to comment on their own lyrics self consciously with asides like "think it's kind of funny right?" or deeming a rhyme as simply "stupid." When they sample 90s techno new age gurus Enigma to turn "Return to Innocence" into a drunken singalong the layers of irony get so thick that it reaches near genius levels. There's even space to throw in a little social commentary noting, "I'm complex/ I'm intelligence in the age of the internet/ Where you are as smart as how quickly you can use your smartphone." This brand of winking postmodern hip hop is best summed up by the hook of "hahahaha jk?" a sarcastic mobius strip of: "We're not joking/ Just joking we are joking/ Just joking we're not joking."
7. Brian Eno- Small Craft in a Milk Sea
From the reverb soaked keyboard that opens Brian Eno's Small Craft in a Milk Sea, it's clear that Eno is back to doing what he does best: crafting eerie but soulful instrumental soundscapes that showcase his impeccable ear for production. A good portion of the album could be categorized as ambient, the minimalist instrumental music he pioneered, but the man known by his collaborators as "the professor" also throws in a few curveballs. A sub-theme of aggressive and abrasive toned songs runs through the middle of the album, culminating in the Buckethead style metal guitar streaked "Paleosonic." In the grand tradition of the finest ambient, focal points periodically rise to the surface and other compositions simply melt into the background. It may not be as revelatory as classic Eno, but it is the best album bearing his name in ages and will likely stand as a late career highlight.
6. Big Boi- Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Just in case anyone thought that Big Boi of Outkast needed foil Andre 3000 to deliver the goods, his solo debut proves that he remains a vital creative force on his own. Of course like most mainstream hip hop albums he has an array of guests from George Clinton to hot newcomer B.O.B. to back him up, but Sir Lucious is Big Boi's statement that in the Kanye era he is not one to be counted out and he makes a convincing case for the staying power of Southern bounce. Throughout the proceedings Big Boi proves that his rapidfire flow can work with just about anything, be it a chill Rhodes groove on "Turns Me On", island themes on "Follow Us" and most impressively of all, what sounds to be a British military march on "General Patton." In many ways it's the companion piece to Janelle Monáe's Archandroid, musically at least, with R&B and rap switching places and fittingly they each pop up as guests on both albums. Of course we would all like Outkast to get together and give us another ATLiens or Stankonia, but as far as Big Boi is concerned if he continues churning out albums like this, he'll be on top of the rap game either way.
5. Deerhunter- Halcyon Digest
Deerhunter’s chief songwriter Bradford Cox has quietly become indie’s new golden boy, not only with the efforts of his primary band, but also with the excellent solo releases under the Atlas Sound name. With Halcyon Digest, Cox continues the roll he has been on and delivers another nuanced and fascinating piece of psychedelia that doesn’t disappoint. While other bands like the much lauded Woods are content to merely recreate the vintage Nuggets era 60s garage band sound, Deerhunter take that aesthetic and refract it through a digital lens, updating acid rock for the new millennium and truly breaking new ground. Take a song like “Helicopter” that could have just been a piece of rococo 60s revisionism, but in Cox’s hands it rides a vaguely hip hop inspired beat and packs in synths that firmly establish that this is a piece of music from here and now. The album also manages to balance both experimentation and accessibility, which on top of sounding fresh with deep roots in the past is quite an achievement.
4. Caribou- Swim
On Swim Caribou’s Dan Snaith leaves behind the art rock fusion that he had been playing with for the last few years in favor of a free flowing dance party. While I’m not going to pretend to know exactly why Snaith has abandoned the more live sound that he seemed to be moving toward, his return to a more electronic and dance friendly structure is most welcome if it results in albums as enjoyable as Swim. Taking cues from the album title many of these songs sound like dancefloor workouts at 20,000 leagues, with liquid basslines and submarine colored synths dominating the sonic palette. While Snaith’s falsetto vocals are rarely the primary focus, the overall impression is that this is quite the upbeat affair, with only a couple tunes like “Kaili” getting abstract to the point of leaving house type beats altogether. Swim shows that not only is Snaith unafraid to change directions dramatically midcareer, but also that he can have quite a good time doing it.
3. Broken Bells- s/t
When word broke that The Shins’ frontman James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse would be teaming up it was anyone’s guess what the resulting album would sound like. Would it be more like The Shins’ modus operandi jangly indie rock or would Mercer embrace the hip hop style production that he experimented with on tracks like Wincing the Night Away’s “Sea Legs?” It turns out neither really, as the self titled debut from Broken Bells basically defies any real pigeon-holing and ends up being a batch of strong tunes that draw equally on Mercer’s songwriting talents and Danger Mouse’s production skills. While Danger Mouse’s other best known collaboration, Gnarls Barkley, ambitiously strained to cover new ground, here the tone is that of laid back effortlessness that puts the spotlight on the songs themselves. Fortunately for all parties involved the tunes are more than capable of taking center stage, with the album moving through dreamy pop on numbers like “Your Head is on Fire”, sleek falsetto funk on “The Ghost Inside” and even a spaghetti Western motif on "Mongrel Heart", while still keeping an overall coherency. It will be interesting to see how this project colors Mercer’s next outing with The Shins, should there be one.
2. Hot Chip- One Life Stand
Hot Chip has always been a band poised on the cusp of greatness. While in the past they have shown flashes of brilliance on tracks like “Boy From School” and “Ready for the Floor” they never quite put together an album as satisfying the whole way though as this year’s One Life Stand. Effectively mining a theme of the commitment to relationships, sometimes explicitly on tracks like “One Life Stand” and “Brothers” and at other times more abstractly such as the shimmering standout “Alley Cats”; this batch of songs pack an emotional punch that cuts deeper than ever before. Musically there are a couple of minor developments, with the title cut sporting a calypso flavor and “I Feel Better” finding the group unabashedly embracing dance pop. However it’s not that Hot Chip are really doing anything that radically different than before, but what they have done is delivered their most consistent, accomplished and lyrically affecting album to date.
1. LCD Soundsystem- This is Happening
Determined to go out with a bang amid self-generated rumors of an impending break up, James Murphy and Co. brought it all back home with This is Happening. After exploring more serious and varied territory on 2007’s Sound of Silver, This is Happening finds Murphy circling back to the long form beats plus rants formula that made LCD so explosive when they burst onto the scene nearly a decade ago. From the nearly nine minute synth driven rave up “Dance Yrself Clean” to the Eno-esque krautrock of “All I Want” every facet of LCD’s sound is represented with songs that definitively express what the band has been trying to convey since its inception. When Murphy emotes “If you’re afraid of what you need/ Look around you, you’re surrounded/ It won’t get any better” on the album closing “Home”, it’s hard to deny that even if LCD isn’t done, they have reached a logical endpoint of sorts. The end result is an overwhelming feeling that this chapter has been completed in a nearly flawless fashion.