Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Top 10 Albums of 2010

10) THE ROOTS How I Got Over (June 22, 2010)
The Roots remain one of the hardest working bands in the music business (let alone hip-hop). 2010 saw our boys from Philly continue to rock it as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, team up with John Legend to record a bunch of ‘60s and ‘70s protest/soul covers, and somehow even managed to release their highly-anticipated ninth studio album. Though it’s only two remain of the original members that formed in 1988, those two happen to be the most integral to what has kept The Roots such an incendiary band over the last twenty-two years: MC Black Thought (one of the finest in the game, even if his rhymes can be stiff or oblique at times) and drummer ?uestlove (the true driving force behind the band). And this is one of the finest albums The Roots have crafted. Though not the sonic masterpiece that Things Fall Apart (or even Phrenology) is regarded as, How I Got Over is solid, a product of gracious studio tinkering and a fierce understanding of how the last two years have shaped the American conscious. And The Roots continue to let a wide array of guests shine on their spots. Not only do we get the usual suspects (John Legend, Dice Raw, P.O.R.N., Peedi Peedi), but fresher faces show up (Blu, STS, Phonte), not to mention some surprises (Joanna Newsome, Monsters Of Folk [the super group consisting of M. Ward (She & Him), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst & Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes)], Patty Crash). All this diversity does not distract from the mission statement: The Roots have always been a daring and provoking force, but on How I Got Over, they’ve never been more consise, restrained or methodical. And it all pays off. This is some of their most straightforward songwriting, and the band as well as the fans benefit from this. 2008’s Rising Down was rumored to be their last, but there’s been no word if The Roots plan on calling it quits any time soon. Based on how good these last two albums have been (and all of them, as far I’m concerned), I hope they never stop.

9) TRENT REZNOR & ATTICUS ROSS The Social Network (October 15, 2010)
If you’ve been listening to any Nine Inch Nails since Trent Reznor came out of his drug-and-alcohol haze (pretty much from With Teeth on), then you could probably guess he had a hand in The Social Network score even if you didn’t see his name in the credits. His love for ‘80s synths and sounds has always been prominent in his music, but on this instrumental outing with fellow sound manipulator Atticus Ross, Reznor’s ability to make sounds fill your ear drums in the same way that poetry creates space in the heart owe a lot to the glitches and beeps of the late Reagan era. Seriously, this movie sounds like a video game sometimes. But this is not the say the score exists strictly to give some sort of symbolism to the whole computer/digital aspect of the story. This album could work on its own, branching off of NIN’s all-instrumental album Ghosts to masterful effect, but it also makes for one of the most interesting sounding films. Considering that film is pretty much 50% sound (audio/visual), it’s amazing how we don’t crave as much originality audibly as we do visually. Evoking the same feelings of paranoia, drive, frustration and destruction that make the man such a creative and motivated force to contend with (I'm speaking about Zuckerberg as much as Reznor), the score contained within The Social Network proves that disbanding the Nails may have not been the worst decision Trent ever made.
8) KAYNE WEST My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (November 22, 2010)
Here’s why Kanye’s still on the list: Fuck the politics. Kanye is not any god’s gift to our ears, nor is he some completely idiotic regurgitation of hip-hop. What I’m trying to say is he’s not quite as extreme as a lot of people make him out to be. There are three Kanye Wests: 1) The beatmaker. 2) The MC. 3) The human being. I’m a fan of the first guy, which means I have to put up with the second guy (who can seldom backup the size of his ego with skill), but the third guy doesn’t have to factor one iota into the music at hand. And let’s talk about that: the music. Sonically adventurous in the extreme, the ridiculously titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (I miss the simplicity of his college-themed album names) is the very definition of what people mean when they say that Kanye’s a creative genius of sampling, this time dipping extensively into rock ‘n roll (from chopping up the Beatles to collaborating with Bon Iver). Admittedly, his overblown sense of himself does allow for a diverse amount of larger-than-life productions, and this album is probably his least cringe-worthy from the microphone’s point of view (too bad the same can't be said for his guest spot on "Erase Me," which is the only reason Kid Cudi's song didn't make my Top 10 Songs list). Most of Mr. West’s guest stars don’t add a whole lot to the equation (“Gorgeous” being the obvious exception), but they never detract from the glory going on (although I’m starting to join my sister in wanting to hate on Nicki Minaj). But this album is far from flawless. It’s certainly not the hip-hop album of the year that 85% of the music publications made it out to be (and then retracted later, in some cases), but it is Mr. West doing a decent job of apologizing for that whole Taylor Swift thing. Keep ‘em coming, Kanye. And if you feel you have some instrumental albums in you, go with it.
7) ROBERT PLANT Band Of Joy (September 13, 2010)
Proving that the best bands know how to do a mean cover as much as rock an original, Robert Plant’s new supergroup Band Of Joy (also consisting of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Darrel Scott) have released an album of musical bliss that is timeless. Timeless in the sense that this album feels like it could have been written and recorded at any point in time over the past fifty years. This isn’t the first time since Led Zeppelin broke up that Plant has put out a near-classic album; 2007’s Raising Sand with Alison Krauss was pretty sweet music to my ears. But Plant and his Band really go to some deep and exotic places here, with as much skill as the days he was rolling with Page, Jones and Bonham. And there’s not a wasted track on here. Nothing is redundant, but nothing is abrasively different, either. The album meshes well, a fitting tribute to Zeppelin’s album-oriented rock. This is the type of album to get lost in, where the space within the sound suggests lots of wide open places. Band of Joy achieve a majestic sense of near-mysticism that only the best bands in the world can. And Plant has already been in one of those bands once, which makes the idea of this album’s success even more splendid (and mysterious).
6) SADE Soldier Of Love (February 5, 2010)
Nobody takes their time between albums like Sade. It’s been a decade since Lovers Rock, but Sade the singer always carries herself with a confidence that anything she puts out is going to be worth your undivided attention, and her eponymous band can always back that coolness up. In many ways, Sade (the band) still sound like a product of the 1980s, but they continue to elevate, incorporating new elements into their sound with each new album that refuses to buck to the trends that have came and gone between each absence. And yet they will always be that band that you play when it’s time to cool out, preferably with someone lovely nearby. Seduction remains eternal, and so too shall be baby-makin’ music. Sade the singer benefitted tremendously from never trying too hard to be the center of the celebrity that is Sade the music. I think this is what has allowed her to not get swallowed up by the media blitzkriegs that try to turn people into icons. Ms. Adu simply knows how to communicate longing, need, desire, passion and loss better than most that have tried to take her place, and that’s had nothing to with her looks and everything to do with her band’s solid sounds that have helped listeners slip through the night a little more smoothly all these years.
5) KERMIT RUFFINS Happy Talk (October 26, 2010)
This is my kind of jazz. Some call it a bunch of other things that do and don’t apply, but in the end, I don’t know what else to call music that jumps, skips, bogeys and hops so endlessly and effortlessly as the kind of music that NOLA native Kermit Ruffins can play. Every time he makes an album, there’s another good excuse in this world to dance the day away. Though it’s hard to experience the excitement of seeing such a warm and charming musician without living in New Orleans (or watching Tremé), you can still feel the good vibrations coming from this eternally optimistic trumpter all over his newest album. Flying through a few classic Louis Armstrong (an undeniable influence) numbers including my favorite “Hey Look Me Over,” Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That (Good News),” and a funky Latin-spiced version of “If I Only Hand A Brain,” not to mention some get-ya-swingin’ originals – my personally preferred being the swampy blues big band closer “New Orleans (My Home Town).” Like Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye, Kermit Ruffins is the kind of guy we could use more of to bring some much need positivity to this world. Sometimes the answer to life’s woes and wonders is nothing more than some good music to move to. Look and listen no further than this barbeque master and bandleader who is all about the good times to provide you with all you need to get your party going.
4) GIRL TALK All Day (November 15, 2010)
Mashups have existed before the digital age, they just had to be covered by highly talented musicians (a prime example: The Afghan Whigs’ hybrid of “My World Is Empty Without You” and “Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang”). Turntables and samplers certainly have expanded the possibilities like never before, but with the infinite access came market saturation, and mashups just haven’t quite been the club owners that they were for a while mid-last-decade. This is a shame, because there’s still room for plenty of exploration, at least as far I’m concerned. Girl Talk is proof of this, though I know that seems like stretching it. Gregg Gillis is certainly no DJ Shadow, but he has shown some exceptional skill in blending beats and syncing songs over the last few years. And on All Day, he has maintained his knack for blending instantly recognizable pop hooks into insanely danceable “new” material. People can continue to discredit the art and science of loving re-playing your favorite records, but High Fidelity got it right, and people like Mr. Gillis are keeping it a steady rockin’ scene when they control the speakers at the clubs. Some of the best house parties I’ve been to had nothing more than a keg of Kokanee and Girl Talk CDs playing all night; they were the best because there was always alcohol accessible and the females never had a chance to stop dancing. Which makes All Day important for the new wave of kids who want to party but don’t have a DJ handy.
3) DAS RACIST* Sit Down, Man (September 14, 2010)
*I think it’s meant to be pronounced as “Dat’s Racist!” without the T (as opposed to German for “the” type of Das)
Hip-hop is a weird thing: some people still think of it as some fad (despite the fact that it’ll be forty in 2012), nothing to take with any musical seriousness; others take it so seriously that they’d have you believe it’s saving the world. People are so unswerving about hip-hop that it’s hard for them to take any rapper seriously if he or she deviates from the standard template. There are no openly homosexual rappers, and funny guys like MC Chris are labeled “nerd core” while multi-syllabic rhyme sayers like Slug are “emo-hop” or “backpack rap.” Yet some of the most visionary artists in the field (or any other) are the ones who eschew these conventional notions and simply present something as they see it (or hear it), while others are simply too busy having a good time to care what anyone else might think about their so call “artistic expression.” I’m not sure if Das Racist is more of the former or the latter, but neither is the point. What is important is this: Das Racist are making some of the most fun, funny, perplexing, freaky, self-aware-without-a-hint-of-self-conscious music I have ever heard. MCs Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez spit verbal somersaults of university-level cultural references, outlandishly crude jokes and profoundly poetic metaphors that blend together so seamlessly it’s hard to tell if this is all a big joke about rap or the next important voice of it. The density of their rhyming reminds me of the layers-upon-layers of sound found in the production of the seminal Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique – there’s a million things in a minute, all of it impossible to intake and decipher on the first listen. These guys make Ghostface Killa’s liquid fire raps look like boring declarative statements (and this is no disrespect to GFK). They cram so many literary references into a single line that you’d be too busy wondering how they make it look so easy if you weren’t having so much fun nodding along. The reason this mixtape wins over Shut Up, Man (another freebie, released earlier in 2010) is because the beats better match the elastic and chaotic stylings of the MCs. Forget that this is "only a mixtape" - this is the most off-the-cuff, yet easiest to enjoy, hip-hop album of the year.
2) DEFTONES Diamond Eyes (May 4, 2010)
More than any other album I picked, this album has a history that makes it all the heavier and more lyrically significant for the circumstances behind its creation. For Deftones fans, this is an album born of tragedy and perseverance. But to the casual listener, Diamond Eyes comes off as an energetic, almost upbeat record. Either way, it’s leagues better than bands that have been around this long should be making. It’s the kind of album that makes me seriously consider the possibility of listening to this stuff in my 60s, the way my father’s generation keeps blasting the Stones and Led Zeppelin. Deftones are still mostly under the radar for those not into heavy music specifically, but they make some of the most consistently engaging, interesting, and (more often than not) sexy music in hard rock over the last sixteen years. Something about Chino Moreno’s croon-to-scream and the band’s tight-wound and full-force wall of sound get people feeling very dark and primal things. Diamond Eyes was written and recorded in a six-month period after bassist Chi Cheng was put into a coma after surviving an auto accident. Despite this setback, while waiting for their friend to recover, the Deftones have endured. Enlisting Sergio Vega, they scrapped their previously planned (and mostly recorded) album Eros and decided to create something fresh to reflect their new state of mind. Instead of wallowing in misery, the ‘tones recorded what may be their most steady rockin’ album to date. Stephen Carpenter’s angular and anxious riffs grab each song by the collar and shakes it within an inch of its life, and drummer Abe Cunningham continues to implement the kind of spot-on hip-hip-influenced crisp beats that makes him one of the most underrated drummers in rock and roll history. Frank Delgado’s keys add textures and dimensions to the soundscape more clearly and effectively than ever before. And Sergio pays deft homage to Cheng, giving just the right amount of hammering thunder, the kind that would make Chi proud (the only thing Vega can’t replicate are Cheng’s shrill call-and-response screams). Note for note, this is not only one of the best albums of the year, but the best Deftones album since 2000’s breakthrough White Pony (a “metal” album that incoporated balladry, glitch and trip-hop to grand effect, reaching platinum status and winning the band a Grammy, and continues to influence both the Deftones sound and modern heavy business in general). If you’ve never given Deftones a try, there’s no better place to start then here.
1) THE BLACK KEYS Brothers (May 18, 2010)
If I say that it sounds like the Black Keys aren’t even trying anymore, I hope it doesn’t come off like I’m accusing them of phoning it in. Rather, the Keys have gotten so good at getting all the sound they can out of guitars and drums (with occasional flashes of keyboards or horns) that they make it seem almost too easy. Brothers isn’t deviating in any way from the progression that the Black Keys have been maintaining over the last decade, which is to say that they're making music that feels timeless all over again. Most musicians that have been so good for so long like the Keys have are either burned out or trying too hard to maintain that same fire; not the case here. Instead, we have our good ol’ Akron boys simply grooving to superior effect. It’s amazing how much two guys can get out their instruments, and the key to that is succinctness. The Black Keys have never really been about overdoing anything. Sure, they’ve incorporated many musical elements into their formula (I'm especially feeling the old school R&B flourishes on this release), but the Keys always stick with what works: Dan Auerbach’s singin' the blues while strummin' away as drummer Patrick Carney plays just the right amount of sanctified percussion to get the boogie where it needs to be. Brothers is a tight collection of 15 solid songs, quite a feat in an age where albums are becoming increasingly marginalized, yet largely continuing to consist of mostly filler tracks padding a good single or two. The Black Keys haven’t put out a bad song or album yet, and what makes Brothers so significant is that it seems so insignificant. This doesn’t try to be a big album in any sort of way. Even the rather basic cover does nothing to try to elicit anything extra out of you. All you’re getting here is good old-fashioned soul-manufactured music, pure and simple. 

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