Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010 | Part One

Artwork credit: Alyssa Shapkoff

Over the next four days, we'll be bringing you our favorite albums of 2010, in no particular order. These are the records that turned round and round throughout our year, and they'll continue spinning long into 2011.

Robyn | Body Talk, Part One (Cherrytree/Interscope) [buy]
Robyn, Swedish songstress and dance-pop goddess, exemplifies all that is good about quality pop music and Body Talk, Part One is Exhibit A to that fact. The songs on this record are catchy and danceable, but have concept and depth that is missing in most commercially viable pop. While most of the tracks are sonically upbeat, the lyrics often lean to the darker side of emotion and experience. "Cry When You Get Older" brings a cynic's eye to matters of the heart: "Love hurts when you do it right." "Dancing On My Own" is pure pop candy, but chronicles a jilted lover who intentionally exposes herself to her companion's infidelity while clubbing her pain away on a dimly-lit dance floor. These songs evoke real emotional response, something that all great pop should do. Body Talk, Part One should be used as the new gold standard for making pop records. If this were the case, the world would be a better place.

The Tallest Man on Earth | The Wild Hunt (DEAD OCEANS) [buy]
Kristian Matsson, AKA The Tallest Man on Earth, showcases his ingenious lyrics, trademark grisly growl, and expert acoustic picking and strumming on his second full length LP, The Wild Hunt. The record is delightfully balanced with highs and lows. "King of Spain" is an infectiously upbeat jaunt. "Love is All" is an exquisite ballad written from the perspective of someone with a hardened heart: "Love is all from what I'm told/ but my hearts learned to kill." Matsson guides us seamlessly through these peaks and valleys, and the result is an experience that is full and a record that hits from start to finish.

Surfer Blood | Astro Coast (Kanine) [buy]
Surfer Blood falls into a long line of '50s beach movie-loving bands that have broken out over the past few years. Best Coast, Beach House, Beach Fossils, and Wavves have all released LPs that have churned up some major buzz, but Astro Coast stands alone as an album that sounds truly unique while touching on some very familiar concepts. As the album plays out, it becomes quite clear that it’s impossible to pin Surfer Blood’s sound down to any one distinct style or direction, with the band switching things up on the African rhythms of "Take It Easy," to channeling the finest melodies The Shins never thought of on "Swim." It's a truly exceptional first album for a young band.

Tift Merritt | See You On The Moon (Fantasy) [buy]
There are times when we listen to See You On The Moon, and we are sure that Tift Merritt’s essential talent is her songwriting. Sure, the artist from North Carolina is often applauded for her voice, and rightly so. But Merritt’s writing on See You On The Moon is striking; it feels personal. And it’s beautiful. This is a record that grooves (“Mixtape”), inspires (“Engine To Turn”), and challenges the listener to think (“Things That Everybody Does,” “Feel of the World”). It represents an artist in her prime, an artist concerned with the future, not the past. It’s Merritt’s best work to date.

Tokyo Police Club |
Champ (Mom & Pop) [buy]
When you name your album Champ, you better come out fighting. Tokyo Police Club doesn’t disappoint in that regard; the songs on its relentless sophomore effort throw plenty of jabs, rocking the listener with a heavy dose of ragged, electric glory. While we’d like to declare “Favourite Colour” our favorite song on Champ, there are days when we’ve got “Bambi,” “Wait Up (Boots of Danger),” or “Breakneck Speed” on repeat. It’s safe to say that they’re one of our favorite Canadian bands we’ve heard this year.

Sarah Jaffe | Suburban Nature (Kirtland) [buy]
“My heart pretends not to know how it ends,” sings Sarah Jaffe on Suburban Nature’s opening song, “Before You Go.” It’s sort of unfair how the almost 25-year-old from Denton, Texas can sound so confident on her debut album, but we can’t deny the convincing tone from her voice on every song. Whether it’s on “Clementine,” “Vulnerable,” or the album-closing “Perfect Plan,” Jaffe, a lot like Kathleen Edwards, doesn’t waste time playing games - she knows exactly what she wants. We’re happy to have found her music in 2010.

Dr. Dog |
Shame, Shame (ANTI-) [buy]
All the press we read leading up to the release of Dr. Dog's 2010 release, Shame, Shame, claimed that the effort was darker, grittier than previous offerings. Lyrically speaking, maybe, just maybe. But, we gotta say, the Philadelphia quintet's fifth LP glimmers with '70s AM Gold and sunshine-y baroque pop, making use of lilting harmonies and shared lead vocals by bassist Toby Leaman and guitarist Scott McMicken. Somehow, even the most literal of tracks, like "Jackie Wants a Black Eye" shake with loosey-goosey verve, so those supposed tenebrific poetics quickly lose the shadows of gloom and doom. All eleven tracks flat out beg for backroad car rides with windows down and restorative springtime air. Shame, Shame makes us happy.

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings | I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone) [buy]
As the lead singer of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, Jones carefully straddles the line between an estrogen-infused bad ass and a vulnerable damsel in distress. In either role, Miss Jones has swagger that can't be denied. I Learned the Hard Way, the band's fourth studio album, is modern day soul, completely authentic to the genre's heyday in the 1960s. "Better Things" is the sequel to Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff" with a confident, "don't need no man" attitude, and the title track booms with the renewed tenacity of a woman who's learned her lesson. Jones' lyrics quite often are marked with messages of female empowerment, and for this, we love our high-heeled, and at times menacing, soul songstress.

Future Islands | In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey) [buy]
For the band's second album, Future Islands apparently made a completely conscience effort to move its sound greatly forward, while keeping the vital elements of the debut, Wave Like Home, intact and upfront. Built behind Samuel T. Herring's unreal contribution on vocals, Future Islands formulates a rich and robust sound by mixing in J. Gerrit Welmers' synthesizer and William Cashion's thumping bass lines. The songs created are some of the true standouts of 2010. The steel drum-riddled "Tin Man" is as infectious as songs get, giving off an incredible energy when it reaches its peak, while the calmer and quieter “Swept Inside” features a subdued Herring singing over a gently-pulsing melody.

Jonsi | Go (XL) [buy]
Jonsi is the nickname of Jon Thor Birgisson, the enigmatic and just plain brilliant singer of Iceland's Sigur Ros. His music to date has been sprawling and complex. Mysterious and ethereal. Described by more than one person as "sleep inducing." So when Go dropped earlier this year, it shocked us all as it unfolded as an upbeat, melodic, and orchestral album that oozed happiness from start to finish. From the quirky and immediately singable "Boy Lilikoi" to the danceable "Go Do" the album immediately silenced those of us who are always skeptical when a band leader steps out on his own.

Spoon | Transference (Merge) [buy]
Spoon continues its impressive run of consistently awesome albums with its seventh, Transference, which is narrower than its predecessors but just as scruffy. By leaving the horns at home this time around, the band hasn’t sounded this raw in more than a decade. Britt Daniel switches it up on each song, simply tearing up his vocal chords on the down and dirty “Written in Reverse” but then lacing “Trouble Comes Running” with his classic woos and oohs. He even sings in that R&B-ish falsetto he's tinkered with sporadically on “Who Makes Your Money?” as he repeats the titles line over and over again. It's a new, but classic Spoon album, once again. And it still sounds good to us.

Cotton Jones | Tall Hours in the Glowstream (Suicide Squeeze) [buy]
Michael Nau's vocals ooze with a bonafide Southern drawl, and if we close our eyes, we see him holding a toothpick in his mouth and kickin' up dust in his sky blue Ford pick-up, on the way to the Glowstream. Coupled with the Whitney McGraw's gorgeous, lo-fi harmonies, the influence of Georgia, the location of most of the Tall Hours recordings, rises from this album, wafting like smoke carried on a docile wind. The follow up to the band's debut, Tall Hours in the Glowstream is filled with dreams and mornings, gleaming folk tunes, and unapologetic hope.

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