my top 10 of 2010: no numbers, yo. [redux]

In preparation for this year’s list, I thought it would be fun to look back at last year’s list and see what’s what! Let’s gooooo!

Hey guys.  Here’s my Top 10- let me know what you think, and write your own!  I couldn’t justify ordering them (especially the top 5), so instead I just made sure that you know that the top 5 and “bottom” 5 (which are still top! just not as top!) are separate thanks to that handy little line o’ dashes.

Happy New Year to all!


NOTE: Year-later comments and updates will be clearly defined in red. It will be an interesting look back.


MGMT – Congratulations

If there was one album this year that caught me completely off guard, it was definitely Congratulations.  After hearing some of the new songs in videos from their live shows and reading interviews, I knew the album was going to be different than their major label debut, but I don’t think anyone expected this.  Congratulations sounds like a surfing-inspired aimless mystery adventure, complete with Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies and of course the typical MGMT weirdness.

And boy, did I hate this album at first.  Having followed MGMT since their Time to Pretend EP, seeing them grow up and become a full band has been interesting.  I wasn’t as keen onOracular Spectacular as so many were- probably because I was so in love with the distortion-less stripped down synth-pop of their EP- but by no means did I dislike it.  I loved that even though they moved toward a bigger sound, they kept their quirky style and put it to good use.  I hated Congratulations simply because it wasn’t at all what I expected it to be, and I simply wasn’t ready for it.

However, what eventually struck me about Congratulations was that even though they completely ditched the sound from Oracular, they really sounded like they were having fun.  Something about the opening track (“It’s Working”) just screams “we’re having fun and we don’t care what anyone thinks”.  While not necessarily a good mindset to follow when trying to sell records, it ends up feeling a lot more approachable- there’s nothing more welcoming than honest fun in an album, and with Congratulations, MGMT nailed it.

Holy crap, last year was a long time ago! It seems like so many billions of things have happened since I first listened to this record. I’ve gone back to it every so often, sometimes even on accident, but I really do enjoy it. Off the top of my head, the only recurring issue I have with Congratulations is that it’s a bit unbalanced. I love the first half of the album, and the second half sort of just drifts by (until “Brian Eno”, but even that track can’t save the sinking second half). The title track closer was one of the first songs they played live before the new album came out, and it never really got me excited for it, and it still sort of just slips by, but it is a decent low-key end to a fun album. Congratulations has enough going on that the sub-par tracks don’t hurt the album’s enjoyability.

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue

When Way to Normal came out 2 years ago, I was super into it for about a month and then I was like “eh”.  Way to Normal was a fun album, but it was misguided and frankly seemed a bit half-hearted.  It sounded fun and new and great until the shine wore off.  Lonely Avenueis the complete opposite- for the most part.  Having followed the progress of this album for the past 2 years and eating up every little demo or live version along the way, I knew what to expect going into the record, and I couldn’t be more excited.  Nick Hornby is a great writer, and Ben Folds writes great music, so it seemed like nothing could go wrong on this collaboration.

And to a certain point, that was true.  The lyrics are fantastic, the music is great, and the collaboration works.  But at some point I found myself wanting it to be more than it was.  There are a few great songs, most notably “Picture Window”, “Claire’s Ninth”, and “Password”, but the rest seems very mediocre.  By no means was it bad, it just was not to the level of good that I would expect coming from such a collaboration of two great artists.  Part of me also missed lyrics from Ben himself, but obviously I wasn’t to have expected that at all from this record.

So in the end, the charm did wear off for me, just like it did with Way to Normal, but in a different way.  With Way to Normal, I kept hearing a Ben Folds that was seemingly trying way too hard to be great (which boggles my mind when you consider the fact that the random creations he comes up with on the spot live are usually fantastic).  On the other hand, with Lonely Avenue, I heard a Ben that clearly knew what he wanted to be doing, but the puzzle pieces just didn’t seem to fit quite right together.  A collaboration that could have produced an earth-shatteringly fantastic album ended up delivering a really, really good record.  And in the end, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I remember looking so forward to this album for years, and then even more-so when it finally started coming together. It’s a shame that such an incredible pair of people didn’t manage to knock this on out of the park. There are quite a few really great songs on Lonely Avenue but I think I’ve only gone back and listened to it in its entirety maybe twice since writing this last year. Songs like “Picture Window” and “Doc Pomus” really hold up well in my opinion, whereas something like “Levi Johnston’s Blues” had the issue of being stuck in time and a twice-off joke since before it even got released on the album. Not to say it’s not fun to listen to anymore, but some of the charm has certainly worn off.

From the beginning, Lonely Avenue was only ever going to be an experiment. And it most definitely came out that way. I’m sure I’ll go back to it every now and then in the coming years, but it just doesn’t fit in my Ben Folds rotation.


hellogoodbye – Would It Kill You?

First off, a disclaimer:  I have never fully listened to any of hellogoodbye’s previous albums.  I have seen them live once (which was great) and got a good sampler of their old and new stuff there.  And of course, I have heard their radio hit “Here (In Your Arms)”, which whenever I hear it has me simultaneously tapping my foot and wanting to punch the nearest living thing.  So I’m not going to do much more comparing to their previous works beyond stating that having listened to only very little of their previous material, it seems that hellogoodbye have made leaps and bounds in terms of their direction and the maturing of their sound.

Even though I am a clearly biased Mahaffey fan, I can safely attribute a large chunk of that matured sound to his fantastic production and accompaniment on this record.  While he also produced the last album along with his buddy Jeff Turzo (as the duo Wired All Wrong, who’s fantastic album you should also check out), he seems to have a much larger role on this album, having produced it all by himself, played all of the drums for the album, and added additional vocals and other various things to the sound.  It was clearly a labor of love for him, and that shows in the sheer sound of the record.

Of course, I could gush about the production forever, but the gist of the actual material is that Forrest Kline (the mastermind behind hellogoodbye) writes great (sometimes even fantastic) little catchy pop-rock songs.  There’s not much more to it.  Highlights include the opener “Finding Something to Do”, “When We First Met”, and the closer “Something You Misplaced”.  There’s not a single song on Would It Kill You? that I find myself wanting to skip past, which justifies my Top 10 of 2010 stamp of approval.  Just plain-old-good-fun music.

Still a super fun album! Can’t get over how catchy most of the songs are. It was never really going to be an all-time favorite of mine, but it definitely hasn’t lost its charm. That’s pretty much it.

Broken Bells – Broken Bells

It took me a bit to remember that this even came out in 2010.  When it first leaked back in December of last year, I listened to it incessantly.  When you look at the collaboration, there is really no way this album was ever going to be anything but amazing.  First, you have James Mercer, The Shins’ frontman/mastermind, and then you have Danger Mouse, the producer that manages to turn just about anything he touches to gold (like Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, and Beck, to name a few).  In the end, the album ends up sounding a whole lot like The Shins with a lot more keyboard and a thick beat, which is basically what you should expect given the duo.  And it’s awesome.

Songs like “The High Road”, the first single, “The Ghost Inside”, with it’s falsetto and fun clap-along beat, and “October” with it’s wonderful piano are all instant classics.  But as you listen more, other songs begin to resonate more, one of my favorite being the album closer, “The Mall & Misery”, which almost has a Strokes-esque feel to it with it’s simple constant beat and wavy guitar riffs.  You can tell that the album was a true collaboration, with Danger Mouse adding his backbeats and production skills to Mercer’s songwriting and soft but powerful vocals.  One of the most interesting but less approachable tracks is the song “Meyrin Fields”, a b-side that was originally on the album when it first leaked, and has even more of the Danger Mouse feel to it.

Broken Bells’ self-titled debut just goes to show that two big names can easily collaborate without one strength outshining the other.  Their abilities simply work extremely well to complement each other and as a result have produced some top-notch pop music.  It will be interesting to see what results of the collaboration in the future- hopefully it won’t be just a one-off and we’ll hear their sound mature as they grow as a group.

This one seems even older to me for reasons I stated above. It’s a pretty fantastic album, even if the product is nowhere near equal to the sum of its creators. It will be interesting if we ever get anything else from the pair, what with Mercer working on the new Shins right now and Danger Mouse doing everything ever, but I hope we do. It’s definitely an approachable album and is surprisingly fresh. I have listened to this quite a few times over the past year and it holds up quite well. Love it.


Jed Whedon & the Willing – History of Forgotten Things

An album that is sadly missing from just about every publication’s year-end list (thanks to it’s underhyped and digital-only release), Jed Whedon’s History of Forgotten Things is probably the best out-of-left-field album of the year.  You may recognize the name, or at least the last name.  Jed Whedon is the brother of Joss Whedon, with whom (among numerous other things) he helped create and write Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  However, don’t go into this album with Dr. Horrible in your head- you’ll hear bits and pieces of his style that made it into both, but History of Forgotten Things is a whole different beast entirely.

To start it off, I think I can easily declare the opener “Interstate” as my favorite album-opener of the year, and definitely one of my top five favorite songs of the year.  It’s a powerful track that opens calmly and builds into an anthem about growing up  “Tricks on Me” has a simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie’s “A Lack of Color”, but is just a tad less somber in tone.  One of my favorites off the album is “Last Man”, an unexpectedly dancey track with an addictively catchy refrain that could have easily been a Postal Service leftover, and yet it all ends with a twist- a jazzy little outro.  Probably one of my more subtle favorites is “One for the Ages”, the song that actually introduced me to the whole album, and caught me immediately.  It again starts lo-fi with a single synth in the background until it builds and then calms and builds again, like a rollercoaster ride of a song, with just the right amount of fun before it all ends.

I can’t stress enough how much this album took me by surprise- I wish I could have known about it when it came out back in August so I could have been listening longer, but I think it came around to me at just the right time.  Whedon clearly shows his talents all around, and it almost seems like he has no weak spot.  I hope he gives the album a proper release, as well as some follow-ups.  They’re deserved.

This freaking album, what a gem. If I were to redo this I would easily have found a spot for it in the upper five, and I’m not sure why I didn’t a year ago, as even then it had basically changed my life. It doesn’t help that this was only ever released digitally either – the PDF that comes with the iTunes download (sadly not included in the preferred Amazon purchase) would be so incredible to flip through physically. History of Forgotten Things will forever be in the “unfortunately overlooked” category, like a hidden treasure only to be found after someone who’s just discovered the all of the Whedon brothers’ various projects and trekked through Wikipedia. It’s a shame, too, since it’s obvious this album was such a labor of love, and it’s easily better than 80% of the stuff released last year.

Oh well. Listen if you haven’t.




Mark Ronson & The Business Intl. – Record Collection

This joins Jed Whedon in the “unexpected awesomeness” category.  The fact is, I should have expected it, seeing as I’ve always enjoyed Ronson’s productions (though I’ve never really listened through any of his albums prior to this).  But I just had no idea he was coming out with an album this year.  I had seen his Zelda-styled video for the song “Circuit Breaker” around the beginning of summer which I had enjoyed thoroughly, as well as the video for “Bang Bang Bang”, which is way freaking awesome.  But I didn’t put it together that he was coming out with an album until about three weeks before it came out, so that was a nice surprise.

For most of the tracks, Ronson takes a backseat and lets The Business Intl. (the group of guest stars that he put together to record and tour with him) do most of the singing, although he does end up singing on two of the songs.  The guest vocalists alone are worth the listen, with features including Q-Tip, Boy George, Spank Rock, Andrew Wyatt (of Miike Snow), and Rose Elinor Dougall (ex-Pipettes), whose album I immediately tracked down after listening to the album because her voice is so great.

Record Collection is one of my favorite albums of the year because Ronson manages to take a fantastically fresh spin on the music of the 80s (which you may know I have always had a special place in my heart for).  Key examples of this are the duet “You Gave Me Nothing”, one of my favorites off the album, which features Dougall and Wyatt on a verse-and-response homage to Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, and pulls it off with ease.  “Bang Bang Bang” could easily be a hit had it come out 20 years ago or 20 years in the future- it just has that much appeal to it.  And the one-two punch “Introducing the Business” and “Record Collection” are easily two of my favorite songs all year, with their awesome instrumentation as well as clever and humorous lyrics.

Still incredibly solid, still super fun to listen to, and guaranteed to be on my rotation once or twice a month until who knows when. There’s just no denying the incredible pop music that’s been crafted on this album. Ronson gets a lot of hate for reasons I still don’t entirely understand, but the fact of the matter is that this album is fantastic. Done deal.


Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Just like every Arcade Fire fan, I had been anticipating the release of this album since Neon Bible came out in 2007.  Not because Neon Bible wasn’t good- in fact I enjoyed it a lot more than most critics did- but because the more Arcade Fire the better.  We had to wait a little while, but I think it was worth it, because what we finally got is magical.  When “The Suburbs” and “Month of May” were released as a pre-order bonus mid-May, I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about the direction.  The title track had a nice atmosphere to it as well as classic Arcade Fire instrumentation, but it didn’t resonate with me the same way that “Intervention” did off of Neon Bible (but let’s be honest, how could it, that opened up with and ORGAN).  “Month of May” was fun, but it just didn’t feel like Arcade Fire to me.  So I waited for what felt like forever until August.

When the album finally dropped and I dropped anything I was doing to immerse myself in it, my first observation was how it felt like a movie.  The album gave a feeling that not many do, in the sense that you’re travelling along with it.  On the first listen through, my initial fears about the direction were gone.  It was clear that Arcade Fire knew what they wanted to put into this album and that’s what I got out of it.  The album definitely has some standout tracks, but in this case more than ever, it is imperative that you listen to this album how it was intended: front to back.

All in all, it’s hard for me to say whether or not this is my favorite of their three albums.  I know I’m obviously not required to pick favorites, but that’s what I do- I will always compare.  For me, nothing beats the un-toppable opening of Funeral, with “Neighborhood #1”’s nostalgic piano and slowly building energy.  Funeral is easily Arcade Fire’s most important album if nothing else, and it clearly sets the bar for whatever comes after.  However, The Suburbs manages to captivate me on a listen-through in a way that the other two albums can’t.  Funeral has some of the best songs on an album that I’ve ever heard before, and Neon Bible will always have a special place in my collection, but The Suburbs definitely ranks the highest overall for me at this point in time.  And when I listen to The Suburbs again, I think of how strange it is that I was worried about the direction from the first sampling, and how I couldn’t imagine the album being any other way.

Hmmmmm. I still love this album, a lot, and it will always be connected to a span of time when I was really wearing it out. It’s strange to me that I don’t play this – let alone the previous Arcade Fire records – too often anymore, given the fact that a couple of years ago that’s practically all I would ever listen to. I don’t think that it’s necessarily worn off, or that I’ve moved on, but I haven’t really figured it out yet. I listened to The Suburbs all the way through for the first time in a while a few weeks ago and it’s still a great album. Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs definitely all fit into their own categories of great on my list of favorites – and they’re each surprisingly different. I’m having a hard time trying to decide whether or not I’d rank this album as high on this list if I were writing it now, but I’m also having a hard time coming up with why I wouldn’t. So, take that as you will, I guess.


Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Talk about unexpected!  Not so much the album’s release- the fact is we’ve been waiting on a proper return from Sufjan since 2005’s Illinois (not counting the fantastic leftovers of 2006’s The Avalanche, an album that can easily stand on it’s own, or last year’s BQE).  Unexpected was the sudden digital release of the All Delighted People EP, and then the total 360 of The Age of Adz less than a month later.  The Age of Adz is by no means a return to form, unless you count “form” as “awesome” and not “Illinois”.  Adz was easily the most startling release for me this year, and while on first listen I basically just didn’t know what to think, it soon became one of my favorite releases of 2010.

I had the privilege of seeing the man himself perform the album in October, and that did nothing but solidify the grand epicness that Adz brings forth.  However, it’s not easily approachable by any means- just like I was, many people are flabbergasted by the glitch-infused digital mayhem of Adz.  One of the best examples of this was seeing all of the people at the Orpheum in Minneapolis with their jaws on the floor, expecting a sweet, folky Sufjan a la Seven SwansMichiganIllinois, etc. (and they got some of that, don’t worry), but instead mostly getting two crashing drum-sets, multiple guitars, a synthesizer, and an ensemble that looked like that had just come from a rave (but had really just brought one to us).  Indeed, I felt a bit sorry for those who hadn’t yet listened to Adz, just expected the same old, and got a surprise, but mostly because they hadn’t had the time to enjoy the album before seeing it performed.

The Age of Adz manages to somehow sound sweet and wonderful and personal while sounding like Trent Reznor’s drum machines broke falling down the stairs with an orchestra.  That might sound a bit messy and chaotic- and that’s exactly what it is.  It’s everything that has been going on in Sufjan’s head, trans-morphed through a machine and pressed onto plastic.  Once you get comfortable with the change, it becomes your favorite thing.  When “I Walked” comes on, you find yourself dancing, pounding on the table, and buying an electronic drum set.  When “I Want to Be Well” comes on, you find yourself yelling along with the ending.  And when you get to the last song on the album, “Impossible Soul”, meaning you still have a half-hour left, you anticipate the absolute chaos and sing along with the destruction.  The Age of Adz is purely an experience that you’ll find yourself wanting to play over and over and over.

[Final three are broken down at the bottom.]

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What to say?  There’s so much that’s been said about this album that I don’t think anything that I can write won’t count as plagiarism.  Here’s the basic’s: I’ve never been terribly fond of Kanye’s previous albums.  I know right?!  Whatever, but, Graduation was fine, I even kind of liked 808’s, but I’m not a Yeezy-head by any means.  However, I know my fair share of Kanye tunes, and ever since the Graduation days I’ve followed his projects.  And so when he stomped over Taylor Swift last year I was like “aww…”, but then I was like “oh man”, in the way that whenever an artist has a (bad) breakup, you know that their next output is going to be FIRE.  And guess what, he went through one of those, too, so double-whammy!

No, I’m not happy that he had a crap year, part of which he admittedly created for himself, but I was excited to see how he would turn it around.  There is no more honest and pure expression of emotion than music, and when properly fueled and artist can create a masterpiece.  And Kanye had his fuel.  But this time, it wasn’t really a breakup per se- it was himself.  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is as humble as it is boastful.  The best moments on the record are the moments of sheer honesty- the admittance of mistakes, the apologetic frustration, and the clear acceptance of consequence.  And he expresses it all in such a colorful manner, in such a way only a true creative mind could.

Is it the best album of all time?  Of course not.  What is?  You can’t put that label on something and justify it- it’s opinion.  I mean, hell, I can’t even manage to number my own choices this time around because I can’t justify the order myself.  There’s been heavy debate regarding the Pitchfork review, as there was bound to be, but the fact is, setting aside all personal bias, disgust, or even praise towards the man, this album is the product of an experience and an honest representation of emotion turned into sound.  For me, there’s not a slow moment the whole ride through, as there’s consistently something around the corner.  Kanye took his game to a whole different level on this one, and created something that is well-regarded as a masterpiece.


The National – High Violet

Out of the unnumbered top 5, this one holds the most special place for me.  Ever since my discovery of The National via their amazing (AMAZING) 2007 release Boxer, they have easily been one of my favorite bands.  The pure wonder with which the Dessner bros. construct their songs, the Devendorf bros. fantastic rhythm section (especially Bryan’s drumming- I could go on and on about how musical his drumming is, but I won’t here), and of course, Matt Berninger’s hypnotic baritone croon boggle my brain bits with their utter amazingness.  And so when High Violet was announced around February of this past year and finally released in May, those 3 months felt like a lifetime.

But the wait was worth it- so worth it.  What The National had done with Boxer, they perfected on High Violet.  It was just as somber and just as intricate as its predecessor, with a tighter punch and arguably more approachable sound, but most importantly without sacrificing the quality.  When the album opened with “Terrible Lie” a lo-fi demo of the song they had premiered live back in March on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I was a little confused at first, but the sheer emotion heard through the scratchy smashed sound eventually won me over.  It became the perfect subdued way to open the album, and eventually it seemed weird to imagine it could have been different (sidenote: a re-recorded version in full fidelity showed up on the expanded edition bonus disc- it is also so fantastic).

After the chaos of the opener, the album slides into “Sorrow”, a gorgeous song with an unbeatable acoustic shimmer and a wonderful punch on the drums.  “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, the second taste from the album when it was released as a single in April, features a wonderful beat behind subtle horns as Matt sings “ never thought about love/when I thought about home”, a sad lyric evoking the deepest nostalgia.  “Lemonworld” drops in with it’s rolling drum line and makes me feel sleepy and warm, even though I still have no idea what it means.  And there’s still “Runaway”’s wonderful build, “Conversation 16”’s haunting lyrics, “England”’s enthralling piano and vocals, and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Cry” to bring it all home.  I even skipped a few in there for space- I could gush about every song on the album, but I simply don’t have the room to do that.

If you haven’t yet listened to High Violet, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Also, if you haven’t listened to Boxer, why not?  C’mon, dude.



This is instantly where I knew I had messed up, looking back on the list here. Obviously I cheated and didn’t assign numbers to this list, which I think was my way of telling my future self that I knew I didn’t have the order down quite right (and that I was wary of the staying power/repeatability of each album in the year to come), but it’s also obvious that I still gave them an explicit order. So, lack of numbers aside, I really messed this one up. I love High Violet. I love it so much, and it was really important and incredibly powerful during the first month that it came out that it had easily instantly cemented itself in my “all-time-greats” list. I wouldn’t take it overBoxer, which is especially clear to me now, but it definitely isn’t too far from it.

But one of the things I remember from when I was writing this last year was how badly I wanted to give MBDTF the number one spot, but felt that that was destroying how much High Violet had meant to me that year. The craziest part was that I wasn’t even considering Adz as a top two contender, which is a huge oversight looking back. The Age of Adz is easily one of my most repeated listens of the past year, right behind MBDTF. I don’t know what about it hadn’t sunk in yet – I even saw him perform it a couple months before I originally wrote the post – but listening back on Adz and MBDTF really reminds me of how they helped me get over the second half of the Fall 2010 semester, which was a much more trying time than the previous semester through which High Violet had assisted. It’s a bit strange to be rating these albums based on their comforting powers (yep, sounds weird writing that, too) but in my opinion it directly corresponds with their greatness.

High Violet is a masterpiece in and of itself, and that hasn’t changed a bit. I don’t think The National will ever be able to make a bad song, or even a bad record. And they definitely don’t just make “meh” records. You know you’re going to get a solid piece of work. Not only that, but the “Expanded Edition” that was released last November, not to mention the two other tracks since (“Think You Can Wait” off of the Win Win soundtrack and “Exile Vilify” out of Portal 2) even hold their own against the top songs off of High Violet. They’re a well-oiled, incredible music machine, and that’s just another reason why High Violet is still so great.

The Age of Adz won’t ever lose it’s power, either. It’s an album that will grow on you if it didn’t knock you off your feet on first listen, and it will keep growing until you can’t even comprehend how much you adore it. There’s something religious in the textures and movements of the record. It’s truly inspired.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy will always be a masterpiece in my opinion. And it will always feel like that weird boost that helps you get through a crappy few weeks. It’s an incredible record, without a single low point, and some points so high that you literally have no idea how on earth they fit in so many high points. The replayability is enormous – if there was any way to wear out mp3s, I’d easily be on my 17th purchase of the album by now. Hate all you want when it comes to Kanye as a person, but good luck denying the solidity of this album. (Hint: don’t try.)