Monday, December 20, 2010

Jonny Blackout's Best Albums of 2010

2010 was the best year for new music since 2000. I don't know if it's just the optimism of a decade-switcheroo or what, but there was a veritable explosion of fantastic LPs, singles, live shows and direct-to-brain plug-ins this year (wait -- scratch that last one, that's 2020. I get so confused. Timey wimey.). Bands I normally hate put out decent records. The overhyped music was actually pretty good, and almost deserved the overhype. Even the shitty stuff was pretty fun (I mean, who the hell *didn't* catch themselves bopping their head like a ten-year-old to "Whip My Hair"?). The only downside to the year was the continued rise of the "Beards/Banjos" genre (Mumford and Sons et al) -- but I was able, through judicious and prodigious enjoyment of synth-pop, to pretend it didn't exist. I had a hard time trying to whittle down to a top ten, so I'm just going to list a bunch of stuff I really liked in a kind of rough order and let you guys figure out which stuff was better.

Apples In Stereo, "Travelers In Time" -- the best late-70s ELO record that ELO never made. It's as if someone took the best songs from "Discovery" and "Time" that never existed -- hypothetical singles from an alternate universe -- and compiled them together on a batshit crazy future-thinking concept LP.

Tom Jones, "Praise and Blame" -- why was there not more hoopla for this amazing, incendiary record? Tom Jones becoming the angry preacher he always wanted to be, backed by a band with grit and soul -- what more could you want? Astonishing, plain and simple.

The National, "High Violet" -- a record I so didn't WANT to like because I usually diverge widely from hipster musical taste, or at least "mainstream hipster musical taste" whatever that is. But I fell in love nonetheless. What can you do when confronted with a lyric like "I was afraid I'd eat your brains?"

Robyn, "Body Talk" -- of course, pop is a dirty word amongst the bearded and banjo-holding, but there was no finer collection of the pure stuff this year -- a distillation of the early-80s electropop sound into perfect 3-minute gems. If you aren't stirred by "Hang With Me" you need to check your head -- it's sharp, perfectly tooled songwriting, the perfect 1983-channeling radio single that never was. The way that chorus soars should remove all doubt.

R. Kelly, "Love Letter" -- there is NO BETTER SINGER in R&B than R. Kelly, fucked-up past aside, and he's finally applying it to mature, gorgeous soul music that's at once retro and completely modern. If I didn't think he was about to release an album of banging, immature gangsta music (he probably is) I'd say this was a career-remaker for the guy -- it's top-to-bottom beautiful, soulful and perfectly written, including the sumptuous "When A Woman Loves" which I think surprised a lot of people who thought they knew R. Not so much.

Mystery Jets, "Serotonin" -- British alt-pop music the way they don't make it anymore (hell, it's "college rock," full on!), unabashedly romantic and crooned the way Ian McCulloch used to. The title track was my replay of the year -- literally didn't leave my player for a week straight. The rest isn't too shabby either -- it produced four killer singles in the UK, where such stuff is appreciated and not pooh-poohed.

Mark Ronson and the Business International, "Record Collection" -- it's unhip to like Ronson because a) he's prettier than you (probably), b) he's an "international DJ," c) he's rich, and d) he's fucking great. You're just jealous. This album provided the year's best single ("Bang Bang Bang"), brought Boy George out of hiding, produced the best video of the year ("Bike Song," featuring the ever-lovely Rosay Pipette), and generally ruled my turntable.

Black Keys, "Brothers" -- heavy motherfucking rock, but unlike their last couple, completely laden with astonishing, memorable hooks. The album I wish Jack White would make, only he never would because he's far too in love with defying expectations -- a good thing, but keeps his feet hovering five feet off the ground. This thing's planted three feet in the mud with wellies on, and sounds the better for it.

Janelle Monae, "The ArchAndroid" -- a soul record the way they used to make them -- I *think*. Stuff this intergalactic may not have ever existed. Not to say it sounds old-fashioned or retro in the least -- but it's coming from a UFO like classic P-funk, but with the emotional center of classic Motown. Ambitious, occasionally stumbling, always fascinating.

Field Music, "Measure" -- Two boys in love with melody, harmony, and spasmodic rhythms, and how those things can be applied to monumentally great tunes without sacrificing a hint of listenability. Oh, and it's a double album. Take THAT.

New Young Pony Club, "The Optimist" -- skittish and dark, angular new wave played by genuinely weird people with a pop sensibility so far left of center it can't find its way back. Cool the way the first few Talking Heads records were, like AM radio from another planet.

Duran Duran, "All You Need Is Now" -- I love how 80s bands are starting to realize that the young pups are stealing their thunder by sounding like *they* did forty years ago. Duran Duran aren't afraid of any electro-newcomers -- they've been making great records all along, it's just that fewer and fewer people were paying attention. That should change with this Mark Ronson-produced gem, which is a top-to-bottom smash laden with fantastic dancefloor fillers ("Blame The Machines," "Safe," "Girl Panic") and eerie ballads ("Leave A Light On" and "Before The Rain"). A great band rediscovers their strength and sounds like a contender.

The Drums, "The Drums" -- a rare gem, a first album by a totally unproven band that crackles with life. Doesn't sound like anybody in particular, but with echoes of stuff you love. Post-punk, sure, but *happy*. Joyous even. Artsy, sure, but also undeniably accessible, the way, say, the Femmes were in the day (but minus the layer of intense suck). A fist-pumper.

Big Boi, "Son Of Lucious Left Foot" -- of course, Big Boi is the best emcee in the world, and he's a freak besides, meaning his records flow like mad and sound like nothing and nobody else. Too weird for mainstream rap, too scary for indie audiences, he hovers like a pimp ghost over pop music, casting a wide shadow over all comers. Including Kanye. You heard me.

Hurts, "Happiness" -- channeling the unabashed schmaltz songwriters from the late 80s -- Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Stock/Aitken/Waterman -- and honing it into a sharp, slightly evil point, "It's A Wonderful Life" was the inescapable guilty pleasure of the year.

Robert Plant, Band of Joy -- You wanna tell me how a 60-something dude with poodle hair can still sound like a cocksure bluesman from another planet without sounding a little ridiculous in the bargain? This thing oozed with credibility but was a hell of a lot of fun anyway, and quite pretty besides.

Ne-Yo, Libra Scale -- The best Michael Jackson record this year, including the one by Michael Jackson. "Champagne Life" was my 2nd fave single of the year -- channeled lush, decadent 70s soul and spotlighted Ne's amazing, perfect, crystal-clear voice.

Satellite Voices, "Scarlet Rays of Future Echoes" -- lead singer Knol Tate DEFINES the word "angular," takes it and twists it into a hard little ball of electric energy and spits it right the fuck back out at the audience on this one, possibly the best local record of the last SEVERAL years. Heavy in the way they USED to mean it -- i.e. full of meaning, brains, soul-churning rock and roll music.

BNLX, "1," "2," "3," "4" -- Okay, I'm a little biased because I'm on their label and I've been an unabashed Ed Ackerson / Ashley Ackerson fan for years, but he's reinvented himself as an I-don't-know-what-exactly, equal parts Big Black, Ministry, Buzzcocks and the Archies, a stirred-in-a-fucking-fast-and-heavy-pot smoking with skittering rhythms, amazing melodies and buzzsaw guitars that'll chop your head off and serve it to you if you're not careful.