What a crazy year.
I’m writing this at my mother’s house in Massachusetts, while eating fried rice from the greatest Chinese takeout place on earth, Franklin’s own Wah Sing. Technically, I am unemployed right now. After five years of being “Andre from the Beacon,” my last day at the newspaper was Friday the 17th. My first day at my new job, as local editor for Patch.com, is Jan. 10.
In between those dates, I plan to relax, see as many people as I can, and get my mind straight. After a year full of surprises, some pleasant and some shocking, I’m ready for three weeks of not thinking about much at all. This, my annual top 10 list column, represents pretty much the full extent of intellectual exercise I plan to get. (And I probably won’t get too much physical exercise either…) 2010 has been a whirlwind, and it’s only now, at the end, that I get a chance to look back and reflect on it.
One thing I can tell you, though, is 2010 was an incredible year for new music. If these things go in cycles, as I think they do, then we were definitely at the top this year, and it can only go down. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, this time next year, I’m bitching about the dearth of good stuff. 2010 gave us more than its fair share, and below you’ll find my subjective ranking of the best of it.
So, the rules, a rant, and then the list.
As longtime readers know, I have very specific regulations set up to govern this list. Simply put, only new, full-length studio albums of (predominantly) original material may apply. No EPs, no live albums, no compilations, no remixes, no covers albums. And I try to hear everything I can during the course of the year. Of course, there’s plenty I will miss (one of the top 10, in fact, nearly got by me this year), but I give it my best effort. The list is the 10 best new, full-length, original studio records I heard in 2010.
I tend to write my list later than a lot of critics, mainly because I want to be sure I’ve heard as much as possible before setting my choices down in (digital) ink. That means I’ve already read what most critics and websites have chosen for their top picks before I write this column. And this year, that means I know what a thorough clean sweep Kanye West has pulled off with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It topped lists in Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, and numerous other publications, and several bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon too.
Not me, though. Granted, Fantasy wasn’t anywhere near my list to begin with, but after the tidal waves of hype, I’m ready to never hear it again. I like the record, I think it’s probably West’s best, and I admire the interesting production and clever samples. But I don’t like it that much, and I really don’t care about the “Taylor Swift Incident,” or the “crazy” Twitter posts, or Kanye’s very public attempts to get people to just love him, man. No. Don’t care. Cultural phenomenon aside, Fantasy is an album of 11 songs, and that’s what it must be judged as. And they’re, you know, not bad songs. But not incredible ones either.
So no Kanye. What is on the list? How about some great new records from some old favorites, a couple of phenomenal discoveries, a genuine surprise and a half at number 10, and in the top spot, the greatest and most ambitious musical left turn I’ve heard in years. I’m pretty excited to tell you about them, so let’s get started, shall we?
#10. Linkin Park, A Thousand Suns.
Yes, really. Even as late as last year, the notion that Linkin Park might one day make this list was worthy of a belly laugh, but they bowled me over with this intense, mature, diverse, conceptually amazing effort. It is their Dark Side of the Moon, a single piece meant to be heard as a whole, a sonic statement of purpose so complete that it sounds like the work of a different band entirely. And yet, there isn’t another band on the planet that would make some of these choices, not another conglomeration of specific musical skills that would turn out a record like this one. From the danceable screamathon anthem that is “Blackout” to the space-rock of “Robot Boy” to the jack-booted chant “When They Come For Me” to the beautiful “Iridescent,” A Thousand Suns is a true journey, spiked with political rage (and samples from Martin Luther King Jr., J. Robert Oppenheimer and Mario Savio). And it culminates in “The Catalyst,” a single that stands on its own, but works best as the capper to this extraordinary record. Laugh if you must, but hear this thing first. A Thousand Suns is better than Linkin Park’s history would ever lead you to believe.
#9. Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue.
Once upon a time, Ben Folds was a master storyteller. He populated his songs with charming, sad, compelling characters, and made us feel what they feel. And then, somehow, he lost that bard-like quality, drifting away into first-person diatribes and jokes. Which is why I was so glad to hear of his team-up with novelist Nick Hornby, the man behind High Fidelity and About a Boy and A Long Way Down. On Lonely Avenue, Hornby does exactly what I hoped he would – he brings back the stories. Here is “Claire’s Ninth,” about a young girl whose divorced parents ruin her birthday party. Here is “Picture Window,” a crushingly sad tale of two people checking into the hospital on New Year’s Eve. And here is “Belinda,” a masterpiece about an aging singer forced to relive a relationship every time he croons his signature hit. Folds stepped up with some of his best melodies in ages, and even though it’s a collaboration (and has a couple of dead spots), Lonely Avenue sounds to me like a return to form, a classic Ben Folds album. I forgot how much I missed those.
#8. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid.
I’ve heard this album probably 25 times, and I still don’t know how to adequately describe it. I asked readers of my original review to imagine that Prince and Erykah Badu had a kid, and that kid really liked Blade Runner. That’s still accurate, but doesn’t tell the whole story. The ArchAndroid is parts two and three of a sci-fi epic in progress about robots in love, and even though you’ll find it under R&B at the record store, it deftly leaps from one style to the next for its entire running time. Monae has the voice of a pop star, but her ambitions are much greater than that. The ArchAndroid leaps from the neo-soul of “Faster” and “Locked Inside” to the funk of “Tightrope” to the explosive rock of “Cold War” to the orchestral whatever-it-is of “BabopbyeYa” with confidence and grace. How many albums do you know that could comfortably fit in guest spots from Big Boi, Saul Williams and Of Montreal? Yeah, it’s that kind of album, the kind that turns your head around every few seconds, and leaves you slightly stunned when it’s over.
#7. The Lost Dogs, Old Angel.
When I heard that the Lost Dogs were going to rent a bus and travel across the country on Route 66, making an album and a movie along the way, well, you’ll forgive me for expecting a novelty project. Instead, the Dogs – a spiritual pop supergroup featuring Mike Roe, Terry Taylor, and Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty of the Choir – turned in what may be their best album ever. On these 15 songs, the Dogs fully recapture the fire they lost when Gene Eugene died 10 years ago. They take us on a journey to find God and America, and as clichéd as that sounds, the album itself is like a dusty old book that keeps getting better the more you turn its worn, faded pages. There are dust bowl anthems and depression laments here that can stand with the best American music you’ll find anywhere, and in “Carry Me,” the album’s most graceful moment, they have written one of the prettiest songs of 2010. Old Angel is not just a great record, it’s a creative rebirth for a band that truly needed and deserved one. Everyone should hear this record. Go here.
#6. Jukebox the Ghost, Everything Under the Sun.
Or, the one that nearly got away. I can’t even count the number of people who recommended Jukebox the Ghost since this, their second album, was released in June. Dr. Tony Shore and Dave Danglis are two of them, and their persistence finally cracked me a few weeks ago. I feel ashamed for missing it for as long as I did. Everything Under the Sun is the year’s most perfect power pop album. In its first half, the Jukebox trio unfurls one impossibly great single after another, from “Half Crazy” into “Empire” into “Summer Sun.” In its second half, the band deepens what they do, opening up dazzling melodic doorways every few moments. (I have had the repeated piano figure of “Carrying” stuck in my head more than anything else these past few weeks.) The result is a piano-pounding festival of song, an optimistic, feel-good cornucopia of boundless joy. If you haven’t heard this yet, you’re going to do what I did – kick yourself for not finding Jukebox the Ghost sooner.
#5. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me.
In which the harp-playing pixie gets real. Newsom’s last opus, Ys, was my favorite album of 2006 for its outsize ambition and its dogged belief in its own fairy tales. But Have One on Me, a triple album that runs 124 minutes, finds Newsom with her feet firmly on the ground. Here she traffics in simplicity, in heart-on-sleeve love songs, in lullabies. Her voice has been honed into a much sharper instrument, and her playing and arranging has been dialed back – there are long moments of silence on this album, moments in which you can almost hear Newsom’s heart breaking. It’s a very different kind of album, and it sounds like the work of someone older, someone with half a century of experience behind her. It is simultaneously bigger than anything she’s done, and smaller and more intimate. Have One on Me is, in short, the full flowering of a remarkable artist, an album of simple truths, simply and compellingly told.
#4. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More.
Mumford and Sons is the discovery of the year, and I have Mike Cetera to thank for it. I didn’t quite know what to expect from this four-piece sorta-bluegrass band, but the passion and force of this album knocked me to the floor. Flailing banjos, wrist-breaking acoustic guitars, thumping bass drums, and Marcus Mumford’s powerful voice all combine to create music that will have you jumping up and shouting along. There’s a little Fleet Foxes to this, a little Levellers, but the end result is all Mumford. Just about every song is an anthem, particularly “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man,” but I’m a big fan of “I Gave You All,” a song that starts with a whisper and ends up with a full-on emotional catharsis. Sigh No More is top-to-bottom excellent, the calling card of a band I hope stays with us for many years to come.
#3. The Choir, Burning Like the Midnight Sun.
Choir fans have come to terms with the sad reality that every time the band puts out a new album, it may be the last one. They’ve been together for more than 25 years, they’ve made a dozen records, and despite having written some of the best songs of the last two decades, they’ve sold very few copies of those records. That they don’t throw in the towel, that they keep plugging along and making amazing albums, is a minor miracle. And so is Burning Like the Midnight Sun, the Choir’s most consistent and best album since Circle Slide in 1990. Everything came together on this one, from Steve Hindalong’s lovely lyrics and inventive percussion to Derri Daugherty’s golden voice and blissful, atmospheric guitar playing. Midnight Sun sounds like old-school Choir all grown up, youthful men playing and singing songs of experience. And with “Say Goodbye to Neverland,” a stunning piano-and-float-guitar ode to pushing onward, they’ve written what may be the best closing song of their lives. If this is the last one, it’s a fantastic way to go out. The Choir has been very good for a very long time, and on Midnight Sun, they’re at their very best. Go here.
#2. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs.
Six years ago, when everyone was going nuts over Arcade Fire’s debut album Funeral, I sat back on my cynical haunches and said, “Wait until their third album, then we’ll talk.” Well, here is that third album, and I’ve rarely enjoyed eating my words more. The Suburbs is a masterpiece, an extended exploration of what it takes to escape the world you’ve always known, set to music so grand, so towering that no other band playing right now can match it for sheer mass. The Suburbs pummels you, yet gracefully picks you up and dusts you off and sets you running again. No band found the intimate inside the dramatic like Arcade Fire did here, and they did it over and over again: “Rococo,” “Suburban War,” “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains,” “Deep Blue,” and the absolutely monolithic “We Used to Wait.” The Suburbs is about suburban angst, but it is also about how hard it is to break free from what you are and imagine something new. But with music this impressive, this forceful behind it, imagining those wide-open horizons is easy.
Which brings us to my top choice for the year. I’m pretty sure I liked this more than anyone else I know, but after even one listen, it was clear there could be no other choice. No other album spun me around and kept my jaw on the floor like this one did. It’s difficult, but it’s dazzling, and it just had to be number one.
#1. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz.
At this point, even people who don’t like Sufjan Stevens acknowledge that he’s a genius. Back in 2005, he released Illinois, which I subsequently named the best record of the decade. It’s a carefully-crafted, dense album that used my adopted home state as a springboard to discuss relationships, self-doubt, God and man’s capacity for evil. I’ve rarely heard an album that attempted so much, and accomplished it all so well. Illinois was something of a rustic folk album, with banjos and piccolos and sweet horns and tenderly-plucked acoustic guitars, but its overriding characteristic was one of every hair in place, every element painstakingly sculpted, every insight pored over for years before uttering.
So what else would Stevens do for a follow-up except smash all that to bits?
The Age of Adz is a shocking, messy, sprawling album that many have found off-putting. Almost every second of it is coated in electronic noise, oscillating from one speaker to the other and burbling up at odd times. Stevens’ voice is cracked and breaking, far from the plaintive and breathy folk singer he was just five years ago. His songs are now unkempt whirlwinds, building and breaking and meandering and rising into melodic bliss just to crash down into maelstroms of clatter. And if you get through the first 10 head-exploding numbers, there’s “Impossible Soul” waiting at the end – 25 minutes long, a suite that flirts with trainwreck for most of its running time, and includes Stevens’ first foray into the dubious world of Auto-Tune.
Very little of this should work, and yet it all does. For the second time in a row, Sufjan Stevens has made an album unlike any I have ever heard. The chaos is the point of this one – the lyrics are about self-destruction and dissolving relationships, about falling apart and trying to come back together. None of them feel like they were worked out over years. They all feel like emotional vomits, particularly the astounding “I Want to Be Well,” which paints an off-center musical and lyrical portrait of a mental breakdown. This is not the Stevens we knew. This is the beast underneath the Stevens we knew, the secret under his floorboards.
And it’s positively riveting. The Age of Adz is ambitious like nothing else I heard in 2010, but it is also intensely personal and darkly emotional. Stevens even addresses himself by name in “Vesuvius,” and he foregoes metaphors and poetic insights almost entirely. The music here comes at you in a rushing torrent, but he’s smart enough to sequence a few interludes, like the haunting “Now That I’m Older,” in between the more complex material. In fact, The Age of Adz is a perfectly-ordered album. It eases you in with the soft folk of “Futile Devices” and the minimalist melody of the first half of “Too Much,” and by the time you’re listening to the cacophony of the title track, you’re sucked in.
Why is this in the top spot? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First, no one else even tried to make music this wholly original this year. The Age of Adz sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, and demanded more of me than any other album I listened to in 2010. Second, it is not what anyone expected from the follow-up to Illinois, and it represents a wide left turn from an artist whose old style still seems magical to me. And yet, Stevens pulled it off brilliantly, making an honest document of his state of mind and getting me to love this Sufjan too.
And third, there is “Impossible Soul.” It is, perhaps, my favorite song of the year. From its quiet beginnings to its round-robin midsection to its pit-of-hell breakdown to its Prince-like cheerleader singalong, and even to its acoustic coda, “Impossible Soul” takes a dozen ridiculous ideas and makes gold from them. After hearing this, I am certain Sufjan Stevens can do anything.
For five years, I’ve been wondering how Stevens can possibly follow Illinois. The best thing I can say about The Age of Adz is that I’m now wondering the same thing about this one. How can he follow this up? What will he do next? This is the sign of a restless and impossibly talented artist. The Age of Adz is brilliant, absurd, astounding, messy, delightful, and absolutely the best album I heard this year. I don’t know how he’ll top it, but I’m pretty sure he’ll find a way, and that’s an exciting thought.
So, that’s that. Join me in seven days for Fifty Second Week. And if you don’t know what that is, you better tune in and find out.
See you in line Tuesday morning.