Tuesday, December 28, 2010

COLUMN: Best o' 2010

Somebody asked me the other day what the biggest payoff of having a column in the newspaper was. The fame? The ladies? The creative freedom? The fact that I'm lucky enough to have my own weekly sounding board to prattle endlessly about pretty much anything I fancy? Nope. THIS right here is my payoff: the annual New Year column in which I can shove my eccentric and/or exceptional musical taste down your throats by this, my list of The Best Albums of 2010.

#10 - Alphabeat, "...The Beat Is" (Polydor UK.) America is SO far behind the times when it comes to pop music. I'd love to tell you to march straight down to the nearest retailer and pick up a copy of "The Beat Is." Sadly, you can't get Alphabeat records in North America without importing them (which, it must be said, our local Co-Op Records CAN do. Tell 'em Shane sent you.) The Dutch phenoms have been entirely overlooked in the U.S., and it's almost criminal. Their new record is once again laden with infectious, unashamed pop, evoking ghosts of 90's dance culture like Black Box and Roxette, but with the goofy and lovable charm that makes Alphabeat a true pleasure to listen to.

#9 - Lissie, "Catching A Tiger" (Fat Possum.) Wow. Talk about a local girl done good. We never heard much of Lissie Maurus while she was growing up in Rock Island, but these days you can't find a music magazine that hasn't given considerable press to her astonishing debut record. Now a resident of Oja, California, Lissie's brand of homemade bluesy folk meshed into the 2010 coffeehouse crowd and earned her tours with Lenny Kravitz, and, oddly enough, a Billboard Top 10 dance track thanks to a DJ collaboration. But it's alone with little more than an acoustic guitar where Lissie really shines, with a voice that runs the gamut from Stevie Nicks to Bobbie Gentry and an unparallelled knack for crafting stick-in-your-head gems.

#8 - The 1900s, "Return of the Century" (Parasol.) Chicago's 1900s became instantly buzzworthy in 2007 with their debut release. Back then, the umpteen-membered band was known for their near flawless recreation of folksy 60's pop pastiche. But in true Fleetwood Mac fashion, inter-band relationships crumbled and members walked. Now down to a 6-piece, the more streamlined and focused 1900s wow us with a follow-up that's more concerned about the music than the retro family vibe. It's jam-packed with challenging yet direct earnest songwriting exploding with hooks -- and did I mention it's a concept record about an underworld cult?

#7 - Robyn, "Body Talk" (Interscope/Konichiwa/Cherrytree). When Scandinavian chanteuse Robyn announced her plans to release THREE albums in 2010, we wondered if the feisty diva had finally bitten off more than she could chew. Nope, and "Body Talk," the latter of the three, serves as a best-of from the previous records PLUS five new songs. It's a full-steam-ahead example of why this small-framed firecracker packs more of a whallop than Madonna or Lady Gaga. She's a superstar in almost every other country in the world, and with just a little luck (and a huge 2011 tour in the works,) the US will soon follow.

#6 - Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (Roc-A-Fella). So let's recap: You call the President a racist on live TV, then you follow it up by stage-crashing the MTV awards and making America's sweetheart Taylor Swift cry. And you do it all while declaring yourself a more important performer than the Beatles. Career suicide has never looked easier. So what do you do next? Hold on, I'm-a let you finish, Kanye West, but you just made one of the best rap albums of ALL TIME. There's a part of me that wants to hate the boorish ego of Kanye West, but it's that same ego that drives him to make the most revolutionary, creative, and ground-breaking hip-hop of our time, and this just might be his "Sgt. Pepper."

#5 - Sleigh Bells, "Treats" (Mom+Pop/N.E.E.T.) Every once in a while, you just need a record to get your frustration out and perhaps test the structural integrity of your car audio system. "Treats" is NOT Mozart, but it's the most fun record of the year. It goes like this: Derek Miller had just left the hardcore band Poison The Well and was making ends meet by waiting tables at a Brooklyn restaurant. In walks Alexis Krauss, a former singer with the failed girlgroup Rubyblue. The two get to talking and Sleigh Bells is born. The formula is simple: Krauss sings sugar-sweet pop hooks while Miller assassinates them all with a sonic maelstrom of jagged guitars and drum machines so intense that no speakers are safe. It ain't rocket science, but it's as loud as one.

#4 - Tame Impala, "Innerspeaker" (Modular.) Most people think of cool bands as always hailing from big city scenes (Seattle, London, New York City, etc.,) but sometimes the most creativity comes from bands in fringe areas without a scene to influence them. Perth in Western Australia is about as fringe as you can get, and that's where Tame Impala were stuck making bedroom records for their own pleasure until a demo on Myspace led to a bidding war and loud critical buzz. Worthy accolades, too, as "Innerspeaker" runs the gamut from Beatles-esque psychedelia to 70's arena rock. Easily the most adventurous record I've heard all year.

#3 - Yeasayer, "Odd Blood" (Strictly Canadian.) Yeasayer are one of those bands easily written off as weird for the sake of weird, mixing tribal percussion with vaguely mystical lyrics - you know, the kind of stuff for hipster kids to power up their cool factor and drive their parents insane at the same time. But a weird thing happened on this, their second album: the band discovered the power of pop music. When their Eastern influences meet killer pop hooks, the end result is an uplifting record of unsurpassed charm and catchiness. If The Talking Heads were still around making music today, they'd probably sound a lot like these guys.

#2 - LCD Soundsystem, "This is Happening" (Virgin/Parlophone/DFA.) When music critics first hailed James Murphy and his one-man dance showcase as the Coming of the Great Musical Messiah, I wasn't buying into it. Finally, I get it. On his third (and purportedly final) LCD Soundsystem record, Murphy channels the ghosts of Eno, Bowie, and Iggy Pop, then rams them head-first into a drum machine. The end result is a thinking man's dance record that works just as well in your headphones as it does coming out a subwoofer at your favorite club.

#1 - The Brother Kite, "Isolation" (Claire.) This unknown little band from Providence, Rhode Island won my heart with their last record, but when the band announced they were ditching their trademark wall-of-sound in favor of a more sparse and intimate feel, I was horrified -- until I heard the end result. "Isolation" brings with it all the pomp and explosiveness that made me fall in love with The Brother Kite, but by trading in their layered guitars for a more subdued approach, the newfound breathing room lets the emotion and intensity in the songs shine. What we're left with is once again nothing less than the best record I've heard all year.

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