Ashley's Top Ten Albums of 2010
Ashley's Top Ten Album's of 2010
Disclaimer: If you've so much as scanned most of this year's top ten lists on Pitchfork, AV Club, Stereogum, etc., you've probably noticed that they're pretty heavily into the nu-gaze/lo-fi/noise genre as exemplified by artists like Beach House, Deerhunter, Wavves, Ariel Pink, and the like. And while I'm sure that there is substantial merit to all of these albums, I just don't like them. I'm not sure if I've descended into some kind of early-onset old fogeyism, but when I hear Best Coast, I just think, "Man, if I'm going to snort a line of coke while wearing high-waisted acid-wash jeans, I'd rather do it to My Bloody Valentine."

Without further ado, here are my top ten albums this year:

10. Los Campesinos! ROMANCE IS BORING
Essential tracks: Straight in at 101, There are Listed Buildings, In Media Res

If the ethos of Los Campesinos! previous LP could be summed up in its title track, "We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed," Romance is Boring seems convinced that actually, we're just doomed. And that might be precisely why it's a challenging album. Tweecore is, as the name suggests, just so damn twee; it's strawberry-flavored, twinkling fluff by way of awkward teenagers in knobby sweaters singing about love and sex. It's a formula that seems less suited to an album built around a nautical motif and dwelling in existential angst and despair, and a tweecore act less clever and talented than LC! couldn't have pulled it off. But when Gareth insists "I think I'd do it for love, if it were not for the money / I'll take any scraps that you can give" it feels more genuine than most of the more upbeat material on their previous albums.

9. The New Pornographers TOGETHER
Essential tracks: Moves, Your Hands (Together), We End Up Together

As elder statesmen of indie rock, as well as something of an unintentional supergroup given the band members' numerous side projects and solo name recognition, the New Pornographer generate high expectations with each new album. Fortunately, Together is a breezy, joyful return to the bombastic, chorus-driven material on Twin Cinema. The title is particularly fitting, not just because of the frequent use of the word on the twelve tracks, but because it's an album that perfectly orchestrates and organizes the presences and styles of the four major personalities in the band in a way that's unified and cohesive. One of my favorite sounds in the world is that of Neko Case duetting with A.C. Newman, and several tracks on Together ("Moves" and "We End Up Together" in particular) use their talents to overwhelming success.

8. Wolf Parade EXPO 86
Essential tracks: Cloud Shadow on the Mountain, Ghost Pressure, Little Golden Age

Expo 86 thrusts the listener into Spencer Krug's surreal universe with the opening track, "Cloud Shadow on Mountain," and never loses momentum. Due in large part to his omnipresence on Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade has always felt, first and foremost, like a Krug project, in spite of the presence of Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs as an equal contributor. But Expo 86 appears to be Dan's time to shine: "Ghost Pressure" and "Little Golden Age" are some of the album's most tightly composed tracks, and even on the songs Krug composed, Boeckner's guitar work is particularly inspired. But just when they've achieved the balance and energy that was sorely lacking from At Mount Zoomer, Wolf Parade has announced that they're going on indefinite hiatus. Hopefully Krug, Boeckner, et al. continue to be as prolific in their side projects as they've been in the past, but even then, their collaboration will be missed.

Essential tracks: Follow Us, Shutterbugg, Be Still
The once humble Atlanta hip hop scene has become bloated, over-exposed, and shitty in recent years, which rappers like T-Pain, Lil Jon, and Gucci Mane churning out crappy single after crappy single and driving lyrically-based traditions into the ground. Thankfully, one of the original ATL prodigies, Big Boi, is redeeming what's left of the scene. Always somewhat overshadowed by Andre 3000's visual and lyrical style as half of Outkast, Big Boi more than stands on his own on Sir Lucious Left Foot; he produces one of the best hip-hop albums in recent memory. Though the album's most recognizable tracks ("Follow Us," "Shutterbugg," "Tangerine") are high-energy and fast-paced, the quieter moments (his collaboration with Janelle Monae on "Be Still") show Big Boi's range in a way that Speakerboxxx failed to.

6. Robyn BODY TALK
Essential tracks: Dancing on My Own, Indestructible, Hang with Me

A lot of Americans forget that Robyn's been on the scene since 1997, when "Show Me Love" was a huge pop radio hit. With Body Talk, she's experienced a much-deserved renaissance outside of her native Sweden. A compilation of selections from Body Talk Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 paired with five new tracks, Body Talk is what good pop music should be: intelligent and experimental, yet still infectious and danceable. Robyn's greatest strength is her crystalline, hypnotizing voice; the only other vocalist I can think of who achieves a similarly pure sound is Emily Haines of Metric. But though she declares herself to be a fembot, few of the songs feel detached; on the contrary, tracks like "Hang With Me" and "Cry When You Get Older" are warm and endearing, a rare quality in electronica.

Essential tracks: I Can Change, All I Want, Drunk Girls

Eighties nostalgia is a scourge, except when it produces outstanding dance rock albums like This is Happening, which (like much of the band's discography) sounds like a 21st century reimagining of Speaking in Tongues by the Talking Heads. It's a fitting conclusion (if Murphy's interviews are to be believed) to the three-act play that is LCD Soundsystem; the frustration of "You Wanted a Hit?" and "Drunk Girls" is balanced by the quiet nostalgia of "All I Want" and "Home." But the greatest achievement of This is Happening is undoubtedly "I Can Change," a synth-heavy plea that manages to be Morrissey-inspired without the whine and with significantly more wit. Hopefully, if Murphy is indeed ready to wrap up his current project, he'll continue to ply his trade elsewhere on DFA.

4. Arcade Fire THE SUBURBS
Essential tracks: Ready to Start, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

I was really skeptical about this album for a long time, mostly because I couldn't imagine how anyone, even a band as accomplished and beloved as the Arcade Fire, could add anything new to the sentiment that suburbia is a soul-sucking wasteland of empty promises and nostalgia for something that never existed in the first place. And after my first listen, I didn't think that they did. But upon second, third, and fourth listens, The Suburbs turned out to be a grower rather than a shower, and it quickly became one of my favorite albums of the year. It's despondent and disillusioned in all of the right ways, qualities accented well by the band's intense orchestral accompaniments (and decidedly more electronic arrangements than on Funeral or Neon Bible). Whereas Neon Bible's paranoia focused on capitalism and global politics, the fear in The Suburbs is of spiritual death and superficial connections. It's Mad Men: The Album, especially on tracks like "City With No Children" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)."

3. Janelle Monae THE ARCHANDROID
Essential tracks: Tight Rope, Cold War, Come Alive (War of the Roses)

In presenting herself as a futuristic robot vixen inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, it's as if Janelle Monae anticipated the popular response to her 2010 album: how can a human being be so talented? Monae is the whole package in a way that few modern artists can claim to be - she's a brilliant songwriter and vocalist, a dancer, a performance artist, an intellectual. Her work is undoubtedly high-concept, garnering comparisons to everyone from George Clinton to Pink Floyd to Michael Jackson. But even if it were to be stripped of its theatrical trappings, the material on The ArchAndroid would stand apart from everything else released this year. From the funky (the Big Boi-assisted "Tight Rope" and "Dance or Die") to the quieter R&B pieces ("Oh Maker," "Say You'll Go) to the rock-twinged ("Cold War") Monae has established herself as one of the most promising acts of the decade. When she inevitably collaborates with Andre 3000, my brain will explode.

2. The National HIGH VIOLET
Essential tracks: Sorrow, Bloodbuzz Ohio, England

Following the release of High Violet, The National has been branded by some as "dad rock," an obnoxious moniker that suggests that Matt Berninger and company are doing something safe or boring. In reality, the National is making straightforward, nuanced indie rock in a market that's been overtaken by lo-fi noisemakers in their early 20s, hardly an endeavor worthy of derision. The material on High Violet is lush and orchestral; several of the tracks, most notably the opener "Terrible Love" and "England," feel like rolling waves as they build to trumpet-laden crescendos. Indeed, the album is mellower in its composition than the two LPs that preceded it - there's none of the screaming or sexual frustration of Alligator or the rumbling repressed anger of Boxer. But The National's trademark lovelorn desperation is woven throughout High Violet; only this time, with a renewed sense of self-awareness: Berninger follows up the line "lay my head on the hood of your car" with the qualifier "I take it too far." For once, the National's obsessive streak is tempered with a self-critical one, hopefully not a quality only found in middle-aged parents.

Essential tracks: All of the Lights, Runaway, Lost in the World

Kanye West, both as a musician and a public figure, is possibly the greatest entertainer of the last decade, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the culmination of his stylistic evolution and the embodiment of a finely tuned aesthetic. The narrative arc of the album lays bare the insecurity and self-loathing that belies his public persona as an egomaniacal asshole, managing to be both a cohesive portrait of an artist at a creative turning point as well as a singles machine, with "Power, "Monster," and "Runaway" generating hype months in advance of the official release date. The album is strewn with delightful contradictions; Yeezy's clever jokes abound (a personal favorite being "Too many Urkels on your team / that's why your wins low" from "Dark Fantasy"), while at the same time, offering scathing criticisms of "post-racial" America.

There's been a lot written about why this album is perfect. I'm convinced that it's not; though Pitchfork gave it an unprecedented perfect 10, I don't think that an album that includes a verse of Fergie rap can reasonably score above a 9.5. Kanye West has always been a phenomenal producer, but he hasn't always exercised the best editorial discretion with his own material, leading to tracks that include upwards of 10 featured artists. Yet the genius of Fantasy is that somehow, the cluttered, dense composition works; it has all of the ambition and pomp of a concept album without the heavy-handed didacticism. It's a hip-hop "Bohemian Rhapsody," and while not perfect, it's the greatest achievement in his five-album discography.
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