Despite being a consistent pain in the ass in many, many ways, 2010 turned out to be a pretty good year for music. And the theme of 2010 was BOLD EPIC STATEMENTS. This was the year of beautiful/dark/twisted fantasies, suburban war stories, and triple-disc fem-folk odysseys. But one artist shot for the moon and ended up in another galaxy altogether: R&B astronaut Janelle Monáe.
Monáe’s debut LP, The ArchAndroid, is the record critics should be fawning over as the new pop pinnacle, instead of a good-but-overhyped offering by a certain Mr. West. ArchAndroid is aggressively ambitious, adventurous, and weird in a way that I haven’t heard since Michael Jackson’s glory days. (Remember when MJ could turn into a giant Transformer to fight Joe Pesci and this was not only considered normal, but awesome? Good times.)
ArchAndroid is the second and third parts of a sci-fi quadrilogy (track down her EP Metropolis: Suite I `The Chase` for part one) in which Monáe is a messianic android in love with a human in a high-tech, dystopian future. (Think Metropolis meets Romeo and Juliet meets The Wiz.) But the Broadway theatrics don’t distract from what is a killer collection of tracks that masterfully reach outside the R&B arena and bend genres like Neo bent the Matrix. Monáe dips her saddle shoes into Off the Wall disco (“Locked Inside”), pastoral folk (“57821”), and indie-funk (“Make the Bus,” featuring Of Montreal), among others — but her powerful, playful voice shines through every stylistic shift. When she urges the listener to keep
balanced “whether you’re high or low” during “Tightrope” (2010’s most joyous four minutes and 23 seconds), I just can’t help but follow her. It’s the best advice I heard all year.
2. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty) I was always lukewarm toward his earlier stuff, but the funky, sweeping Age of Adz made me a bona fide Sufjan lover — and had me swapping Adz with ArchAndroid for the top spot at least a dozen times. (If you see me out at a gig, ask me about how I think Adz and Android are essentially long-lost twins and perfect companion albums.)
3. Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop) Hands down the single prettiest LP this year. I want to marry Victoria LeGrand’s voice, but it’s “impossible” according to “just about everybody.”
4. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest (4AD) This album restored Marcus Rubio’s faith in pop music, and he’s not wrong. “Memory Boy” is my jam of late 2010.
5. Spoon, Transference (Merge) Spoon is on fire here, bringing welcome scruffiness to their most emotional record since Girls Can Tell.
6. The National, High Violet (4AD) Call it Boxer Part Two (or Alligator Part Three), but High Violet is the sound of a maturing band still deep in their prime.
7. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge) Fun drinking game: Every time Win Butler says the word “kids,” take a shot. See you at the hospital.
8. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me(Drag City) Thank you, ma’am. May I have another?
9. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening(Virgin/Parlophone/DFA) LCD’s final (noooooooo) LP is a grand send-off, bringing just the right mix of pain to the party.
10. The Walkmen, Lisbon(Fat Possum) Nobody does broke-down beauty better than the Walkmen, in any country.
(top 10 Latin CDs)
Imagine Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart (R.I.P., by the way), and Antonio Carlos Jobim on acid and Red Bull, all rolled into one, and you’re only touching the surface of who this guy is. Thanks to his left-field combination of humor, political commentary, and an experimental mix of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, avant-garde, and roots, Zé is the mad genius of Brazilian music. This triple CD includes his Brazilian roots trilogy: Estudando O Samba (1975), Estudando O Pagode – Na Opereta Segregamulher e Amor (2005), and Estudando A Bossa – Nordeste Plaza (2008), all previously released in the U.S. by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop. The 48 tracks you can download from iTunes for $30 are enough to discover Zé, but if you are of the insatiable kind (a distinct possibility, especially if you have good ear and better taste for music), you can buy the whole box, which includes rare vinyl, original packaging, and other goodies worth the 70 bucks. Warning: This is not your typical “Garota de Ipanema”-type Brazilian music everyone can enjoy. This is crazy shit. And you should love it.
2. Rubén Blades & Seis del Solar, Todos vuelven Vol. 1 y 2 (Ariel Rivas Music) You won’t find this live show on anyone’s list (maybe because it was released in November), but Blades’ return with his sextet sounds as spectacular now as he did in the ’80s.
3. Calle 13, Entren los que quieran (Sony Latin) The jewels in this album are strong enough to ignore the throwaways. Screw reggaetón.
4. Maria Bethânia, Amor festa devoção (Biscoito Fino) Caetano Veloso’s sister keeps finding obscure songs to knock your socks off.
5. Silvio Rodríguez, Segunda cita (Ojalá) Far from his masterpieces of the ’70s, I’ll still take a bad Rodríguez over a good Arjona anytime.
6. Ceumar & Trio, Live in Amsterdam (Independent) Fifth album by one of Brazil’s best singer-songwriters of the last 10 years.
7. The Chieftains feat. Ry Cooder, San Patricio (Hear Music) A gorgeous homage to los Patricios, the deserting U.S. soldiers considered heroes in Mexico and traitors here.
8. Perrozompopo, CPC(Canciones Populares Contestatarias) (Independent; free download at perrozompopo.com) Simply put, the best Central American rock album ever.
9. Choc Quib Town, Oro (Nacional Records) Today’s hottest Latin hip-hop act won a Latin Grammy for this gem.
10. Various Artists, The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru Vol. 2 (Barbès Records) Guitar- and Farfisa organ-driven mayhem, in a selection of trippy ’60s and ’70s cumbias like you’ve never heard before. Unless you have Vol. 1, of course.
The fourth album from the Atlanta quartet was produced by Ben Allen of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion fame. Covered in fuzzy, distorted, enigmatic layers and set in a nostalgic pop daydream, the album reflects the search for the youthful carefree life complete with moments of bliss, self-reflection, and isolation.
In “Earthquake,” lead singer Bradford Cox leaves listeners jolted and suspended in weightless layers of reminiscence: “Do you recall waking up?” In “Basement Scene,” the Everly Brothers are echoed through Cox’s lyrics about an indie Neverland where you can get stoned without the side effects. While an autoharp plays in the background, “Helicopter” lends itself to the fantasy ride of a lifetime. The airiness juxtaposed with the damp melodies nestles the listener into a raincloud before a storm. The story surrounding the song (which involves a Russian prostitute) is bleak, but the psychedelics of the music maintain a certain grace.
The final song, “He Would Have Laughed,” is dedicated to Jay Reatard. Despite its repetitive melody, the soothing guitar turns the song into a mesmerizing seven-and-a-half-minute tribute to the late garage rocker. Even though Halcyon Digest is filled with wistful debris, the intricate harmonies and echoing lyrics give hope for music of the new decade.
2. Beach House, Teen Dream(Sub Pop) Mesmerizing vocals and shoegaze melodies complement this dreamy album.
3. Caribou, Swim (Merge) Pleasantly danceable, this album captures the adventures of a night out.
4. Laurie Anderson, Homeland (Nonesuch) Anderson uses her well-known, electronically manipulated voice to critique love, loss, and bailouts.
5. Blonde Redhead, Penny Sparkle (4AD) Spacey, airy, and deep layers leave listeners in a transitory bliss.
6. Warpaint, The Fool (Rough Trade) The first full-length album released by the siren quartet lures you into a fantasy folk world.
7. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening (DFA) James Murphy loses himself in fun, creative vocals and catchy synth grooves.
8. Mount Kimbie, Crooks & Lovers (Hotfish) The album is filled with samples of natural ambiance, blips, and bleeps, creating organic landscapes.
9. Indian Jewelry, Totaled (We Are Free) Houston experimental art-rock foursome construct polished psychedelic sounds. See “Excessive Moonlight.”
10. Tame Impala, InnerSpeaker (Modular Recordings) Gritty distorted guitars and resonating vocals take over this psych/folk/blues trio’s album.