We’ve come again to the end of the year, which means I – like so many others out there in the blogosphere who thinks their opinions are the only ones worth listening to – have compiled my list of the ten best albums of 2010. Here they go, in some particular order:
10. The Walkmen, Lisbon: Moody, atmospheric…yeah, those’re words that describe a typical Walkmen album. And while Lisbon definitely fits in with the band’s prior output, there’s a new approach here, a cleaner take on the production and some nice sonic touches that stand out. Not their best album ever, maybe, but a damn fine record nonetheless.
9. Spoon, Transference: Another album by another band that seems to be in keeping with what’s come before, but also marks a bit of a departure. Whereas Spoon seemed to strip away more and more elements in their previous records, apparently in an effort to see how minimalist they could really get and still have a rock record, here they start adding stuff back in, throwing in strange keyboard swirls and clipped vocal parts that jump in and out of the mix, often stopping mid-phrase. The obvious standout track, “Written in Reverse,” could’ve fit in comfortably alongside anything from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or Gimme Fiction, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
8. John Mellencamp, No Better Than This: Mellencamp’s been doing his best Bob Dylan impression lately. No, not singing like Bob, but digging back into the history of American music like Bob, going through the trunk in America’s attic and pulling out all sorts of interesting sounds and trying them on. Here, he decides the old ways are definitely the best ways and records an album the way they used to: no overdubs, all live, one mic, the whole band in the room together. It creates an interesting atmosphere. It helps that he’s written some compelling tunes, too, and it adds up to one of his best albums in years.
7. Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social, Love it to Life: I really dig Jesee Malin (just saw him live last week, as a matter of fact). I heard him live before I ever heard one of his studio albums, and it really wasn’t fair: live, there’s energy, charisma, and plenty of rough and raw power. In the studio, Malin is meticulous, almost clinical, in his attention to sonic detail. Usually to the point of making his studio work sound like it’s been recorded in a hermetically-sealed bubble. I was always sad that his albums lacked that live energy. This record corrects that problem, bringing the energy and live band feel of the shows to a studio record. They may not be the best songs he’s ever written (most of those are still on The Fine Art of Self-Destruction), but they come the closest to replicating that live feeling.
6. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: They’ve dropped the definite article from their name, but they’re still the same band that recorded Funeral: that is to say, they’ve still got a lot on their minds, some of it mundane, some of it esoteric, almost all of it compelling. This record comes the closest to reflecting the actual size of the band (there’s, like, seven or eight of them), as the songs feel full and outsized in the best possible way. They’re a band that trades in bombast and anthems, but they do it very well and very convincingly.
5. The New Pornographers, Together: The power-pop supergroup brings their A game here, with everyone contributing songs that are poppy, bouncy, energetic, and, above all, fun. These guys haven’t ever released a bad record (despite what some critics may say about Challengers), but this one easily ranks in the top half of their discography. Good stuff.
4. Jakob Dylan, Women and Country: If this list were based on sheer number of listens, Jakob Dylan would win hands-down. Granted, it had the unfair advantage of being released really early in the year, but even without that advantage, it has some of the best damn music I’ve heard all year. T-Bone Burnett produced the record, and his sonic fingerprints are all over the place: the flourishes of pedal steel that creep in, the soft, muted percussion, the hazy atmosphere that wraps the songs up like a blanket, and the beautiful backing vocals. Add to that the set of fantastic songs Dylan penned for this album, and you’ve got a record that was easily one of my favorites for the decade, not just the year.
3. Old 97’s, The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1: I had a little trepidation when I downloaded this album. I didn’t really care for their last full-length effort, Blame it on the Gravity, and the Rhett Miller karaoke-fest of Mimeograph had me worried. But this record put those fears to rest, as the band cranked out some of the most fun, energetic music of their career. These guys are a little older and a little wiser than the Too Far to Care days, but they’ve found that era’s vitality again. They’re also better musicians, and that shines through on tracks like “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” and their (apparently authorized!) revision of “Desolation Row,” “Champagne, Illinois.” This is the best record they’ve made in years, hands down.
2. The National, High Violet: While it may not reach the heights of Alligator or reach the brooding majesty of Boxer, this is a damn fine album. Just because it’s not an automatic masterpiece doesn’t mean it isn’t great. There are plenty of beautiful moments, plenty of wryly clever lines, and lots of swelling anthems that you can’t help but sing along with. There’s not a bad song on the album, and while it is a grower (like most albums by the National), some of the songs do get their hooks in you immediately (“Bloodbuzz, Ohio” comes to mind).
1. The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang: I could listen to the first four songs on this album over and over again every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy in doing so. This is the record they’ve been trying to make since they started: anthematic, energetic, and powerful. Yes, they still owe a huge debt to the work of Bruce Springsteen, and they still sound like what would happen if the E Street Band started playing punk, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s the best album they’ve released, and it’s my favorite album of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World was nice but fairly forgettable, She & Him’s Volume 2 just didn’t have the same spark as their first album, Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series: Volume 9 – The Witmark Demos was interesting but ultimately a little repetitive (I mean, we’ve basically heard all these songs before), and Mavis Staples’s You Are Not Alone was a nice tour of her strengths. I was pretty disappointed in the offerings from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Vampire Weekend didn’t do anything new on their second album that they hadn’t already done on their debut, and the Gorillaz just didn’t grab me (except for “Some King of Nature,” but I love me some Lou Reed).