Top CDs of 2010 | Mike Rengel

The Drums’ debut has no glaring touchstones, becoming an almost outside-of-time take on indie guitar pop.

Traditional disclaimer: I’m not claiming that these are the ten best albums released in 2010. For one, you can’t quantify art, measure it with an oscilloscope-festooned art-o-meter. What’s more, the mountain of music I listened to over the past year represents only a tiny fraction of what I was aware of and managed to hear, to say nothing of the universe of albums I remain oblivious to. My Top Ten is just that: my ten favorite LPs of 2010. I try to approach it honestly—what did I listen to the most in the past 12 months? What am I still spinning in December that I first heard in January? These are the ten discs that impressed and stuck with me in the first year of the new decade, presented in totally random order.
The Drums | The Drums (Downtown/Island)
Muted synth touches and a spacious minimalism hearken to the ’80s end of post-punk, but there’s also an undercurrent of ’60s pop and doo-wop running through. Despite its influences, The Drums’ debut has no glaring touchstones, becoming an almost outside-of-time take on indie guitar pop. Bouncy, irresistible Smiths-ian basslines hang on no-filler three-minute frames; while the instrumentation is minimal, the music is filled with a palpable enthusiasm and a heart that belies its sometimes arch cool. The Drums astutely encapsulate their M.O. with one of their own lyrics: “I need fun in my life/ I need life in my fun.” Here, you get both.
Kanye West | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
If a fine line separates genius and madness, then Fantasy obliterates it in an ostentatious, megalomaniacal inferno. Kayne throws it all out there—martial beats, sly wit and humor, prog rock samples, treated guitars, songs as densely layered multi-part suites, a cavalcade of guest MCs and musicians (hip-hop, pop, indie, you name it, often all within the same song), a predilection for corny dick jokes, inexplicable references, sensitive self-recriminations, and egotistical blame-gaming. Fantasy is the best kind of blockbuster, the Billboard smash that’s also finely crafted and experimental, as complex and unconventional as it is effortlessly chart-busting. Kanye impresses with his audacity and hubris, but then backs it up with rhythmic and melodic skill, flair and mad inventiveness.
Vampire Weekend | Contra (XL)
Vampire Weekend take their sweater-vested white-boy Afro-pop on a Southern California vacation, en route assimilating ’80s synthpop and their love of U.K. chart pop. Remarkably, Contra skips the sophomore slump entirely, coming on bigger and badder than the debut by gently introducing new elements to the group’s sound, but never losing sight of the rhythmic-melodic fusion at its core. Mostly, it’s a fully assured second record, a showcase for a restless, hook-savvy band that flat out just knows how to write songs.
Tift Merritt | See You on the Moon (Fantasy)
A beguiling, quietly resonant mix of ’70s L.A. singer-songwriter, Nick Drake quiet-folk, and country rock. Merritt has the honest, unaffected voice of a vocalist who doesn’t know how good she truly is, and the wisdom to drape strong melodies in understated arrangements. The subtlety makes See You on the Moon a major-league slow-burner, but once you crack its shell, you’re treated to the inner monologue of a sorrowful, yet optimistic, old soul.
Best Coast | Crazy for You (Mexican Summer)
For serving up nicely toasted, “eh, whatever” shoulder-shrugging lo-fi surf rock with uncommon ease, Beth Cosentinowins my coveted Awesomest Person of the Year prize. Crazy is half brash, bratty bristling and half vulnerable sentiment, an audio postcard from an ennui-loaded summer at the beach with a prickly-adorable, cat-obsessed stoner chick. And, come on…hangin’ with Snacks the Cat!
The National | High Violet (4AD)
A baroque, darkly weird, often apocalyptic feeling examination of fatherhood, easing into adulthood, sex and what we do to cope with it all, and navigating the often-uncomfortable zone that lies between thirty-something responsible and not-dead-yet. As with most anything National related, these songs are almost inscrutable on first listen, but slowly, methodically reveal their secrets. Subtle yet worm-their-way-into-your-subconscious melodies, propulsive drums, and Matt Berninger’s unmistakable, gravitas-lending baritone make for an album that veers between a hush and an explosion, one that’s always massively emotionally resonant. Easily the most played, most compelling disc I heard all year.
Fitz & the Tantrums | Pickin’ Up the Pieces (Dangerbird)
I caught this one at the tail end of the year, but it quickly lodged itself in endless rotation, earning itself a come-from-behind Top 10 entry. Pieces is nary a wasted minute of sharp-as-hell blue-eyed soul with an indie rock bent. Fitz and Co. are an indie-fried Hall & Oates set to maximum R&B, designed to get your feet moving and your throat choked up, something they do well and often.
Arcade Fire | The Suburbs (Merge)
Neither a condemnation of nor celebration of its titular inbetween places, but a transmission from them. The Suburbs is of them. It almost feels like being inside a documentary, what you’d hear if you got in your car, drove around 1970s heyday ’burbs with manicured lawns and the smiling middle class, and if you took the dame drive through today’s post-exurb, fed-out-on-itself sprawl. Win Butler tones down Neon Bible’s suffocating paranoia, and in the process finds a lone, small beating heart left behind in the crumbling shell of a big box store.
Francis & the Lights | It’ll Be Better (Cantora)
I can’t do this justice in a blurb, and besides, I wrote about it in a full length review earlier this year:
Manic Street Preachers | Postcards From a Young Man (Columbia)
Oddly, 10 albums and almost 20 years on from their debut, Postcards represents what might be the Manics’ most finely realized attempt at being what they’ve always tried to be: grand, populist pop/rock with a fiercely intelligent, political, questioning bent. These are crazy tight, radio-ready songs with strings, choirs and a joyous pop-metal vibe. They’re also celebrations of music’s ability to reach out and touch someone, as well as cranky, yet endearing, condemnations of post-industrial Britain and technology masquerading as socialization. Imagine a Welsh Slash bemoaning modern alienation while eagerly soloing over ELO and Motown Tamla ’45s. It makes for a record that’s simultaneously everything and nothing like anything the Manics have ever done before.
The Honorable Mentions
(of which there are many, and many of which could have replaced something that I put in the Top 10)
The Gaslight Anthem | American Slang (Side One Dummy)
LCD Soundsystem | This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin)
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby | Lonely Avenue (Nonesuch)
Elizabeth & the Catapult | The Other Side of Zero (Verve Forecast)
Janelle Monae | The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy/Wondaland Arts Society)
David Gray | Foundling (Mercer Street/Downtown)
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings | I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone)
Yeasayer | Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian)
Frightened Rabbit | The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fat Cat)
Beach House | Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
Wavves | King of the Beach (Fat Possum)
Girls | Broken Dreams Club EP (True Panther)
Mumford & Sons | Sigh No More (Glassnote)
Zaz | Zaz (SME Strategic Marketing Group)
Surfer Blood | Astro Coast (Kanine)
Elton John & Leon Russell | The Union (Decca)
The Hold Steady | Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant)
Freelance Whales | Weathervanes (Frenchkiss/Mom & Pop)
Belle & Sebastian | Write About Love (Matador)
Annual “Late to the Party” Award for Great Record(s) That Came Out Last Year
But I Didn’t Get Around to Until This Year
Passion Pit | Manners (Frenchkiss)


| Mike Rengel

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