Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten Albums of 2010

Yesterday, I shared with you my picks for the ten best songs of 2010. Expanding on the music theme a bit, here are my ten favorite albums of the year:

#10) Cyndi Lauper | Memphis Blues

Sadly, Lauper garnered more attention in 2010 for appearing as a contestant on Donald Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice than she did for this startlingly accomplished blues album. Despite having remained #1 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart for 14 consecutive weeks, Lauper failed to ignite much mainstream interest in this concept album that cements her versatility as a true musical renaissance woman. Surprisingly, her New Yawk accent – here falling somewhere between trademark squeaky warble and roadhouse twang – lends itself quite well to this collection of alternately rollicking and bluesy tracks — even if Lauper lacks the authority and grit of a traditional blues vocalist.

#9) TIE Jakob Dylan | Women + Country and Brendan James | Brendan James

Ok, you may think that a tie for my 9th favorite album of 2010 is a merely a ploy to sneak in an extra selection, but, in truth, these albums represent a single choice for the two best efforts by very different –yet equally exceptional – male singer-songwriters. Dylan’s folk-rock pedigree is on fine display on this second solo outing sans The Wallflowers, while James’ sophomore effort – here sporting a more accomplished commercial sound than his 2007 debut – wisely keeps the modern-day troubadour and his trusty piano front and center. Lush lyrics and melodies that range from plaintive and meditative to uplifting and inspirational make the music of these two gents put the likes of the bland (and confoundingly more popular) John Mayer to shame.

#8) Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (OMD) | History of Modern

The veteran synth-pop group’s 11th album (and first since 1996) is pure 80’s prom on a plate. It was as if the band’s original line-up (Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes, and Martin Cooper) had locked themselves away in a time capsule, isolated from any music post-1985. The result is this ebullient collection of uptempo synthpop perfection tempered with a few of the band’s signature moody ballads that will make you feel like you’ve stepped into the celluloid world of a John Hughes movie all over again.

#7) The New Pornographers | Together

The Canadian ensemble’s fifth album blends a decidedly distinctive Beatles aesthetic with the group’s trademark symphonic bombast and soaring, hook-laden choruses on this unassuming collection of breezy, folky-rock throwbacks. The supergroup’s four primary vocalists – A.C. Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, and Kathryn Calder – seamlessly trade vocal duties and anchor the collection like four distinct colors on the same artist’s palette. As likely to snatch your breath with their poetic lyrics as they are to drive you to compulsive toe-tapping with their sunny harmonies, The New Pornographers continue the brilliant musical experiment they began with 2000’s Mass Romantic.

#6) Scissor Sisters | Night Work

On its third album, the colorful NYC band eschews the trademark subtle homoerotic playfulness of its first two efforts with this brasher, rainbow flag-waving set of queer subculture set to music. Aiming less for mainstream gay sensibility here, frontman Jake Shears and company strike out to explore the darker underbelly of the gay ghetto. The result is a bolder, less compromising effort that audaciously explores the promiscuous hedonism and sometimes violent fetishism of the gay sexual underground – perhaps the direct result of Shears’ year-long binge in East Berlin. As always, the Scissor Sisters’ music itself is grounded in the articulate, smart-pop sensibilities of the Pet Shop Boys and emboldened by the sleazier, high-energy sexuality of Dead or Alive, while the vocal tradeoff between Shears and Ana Matronic calls to mind the falsetto versus baritone brilliance of Jimmy Somerville and Sarah Jane Morris, circa The Communards era.

#5) Groove Armada | Black Light

The electronic music duo of Andy Cato and Tom Findlay proudly wears its New Order, Gary Numan, and Human League influences on its sleeves on this, the elder statesmen of dance music’s sixth studio album. Deep, propulsive rhythms and synthesized bass lines form the backdrop for the Armada’s latest coterie of vocalists – including Bryan Ferry, Nick Littlemore, Fenech Soler, SaintSaviour, Jess Larrabee, and Will Young. The result is stylish, sophisticated dance music with a decidedly 80’s vibe that gives the album a trans-generational quality.

#4) Brandon Flowers | Flamingo

The Killers’ charismatic crooner throws a curveball out to fans on his first solo outing, a flavorful homage to his native Las Vegas that brims with personality. His unabashed love of all things 80’s remains (thankfully) intact, with some Springsteen-like flavorings that call to mind the Boss in his mellower recent years. Wisely, Flowers balances his solo aspirations here with The Killers’ past efforts, creating a more personal collection of songs that possess all the familiar new wave catchiness of the band he’s fronted through a trio of albums (and one compilation set).

#3) Natalie Merchant | Leave Your Sleep

After a protracted maternity leave, the former 10,000 Maniacs frontwoman returned with this eclectic collection of poetry set to folk-meets-world music. Dizzyingly and dazzlingly brilliant — and well worth the wait since 2003’s underappreciated The House Carpenter’s Daughter. Highlight: The unadulterated childhood whimsy of “Bleezer’s Ice Cream”, a quirky ditty about Pomegranate Pumpernickel and twenty-seven other curious concoctions of the titular frozen confection.

#2) Elton John & Leon Russell | The Union

Alright, I predicted that this one would be a Grammy darling, sweeping everything including the coveted “Album of the Year” category; yet, surprisingly, this brilliant collection that saw the legendary John trading vocals and going piano-to-piano with comeback kid Russell barely made a blip on Grammy voters’ radar screens. Top-notch songwriting is given first-class production by a first-rate producer – T-Bone Burnett – while high profile musical luminaries like lyricist Bernie Taupin, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, and Booker T. Jones all stop by to lend a hand. The result is this lush, bluesy collection of poignant reflections on a romantically imagined America. The musical terrain is rustic (evocative of an early 70’s cross-country road trip), while the warm familiarity of John’s instantly recognizable hunky bass blended with Russell’s sandpapered lazy drawl is like comfort food for the ears.

#1) Arcade Fire | The Suburbs

The Canadian band’s latest has catapulted them from indie darlings to mainstream modern rock mainstays. Understatedly ambitious but accessible, The Suburbs is, quite simply, a masterpiece. From their elaborate instrumentation to their thinking-man’s lyrics, the songs here scream to be played in college campus coffeehouses everywhere and analyzed over double shot mocha lattes. The lyrical maturity and sophisticated musical arrangements are striking, both belying and celebrating the youthfulness of the young men and women behind the music. Like old souls, each song in the collection offers some form of rumination – sometimes lamentation – about the time we squander as adults romanticizing the wasted time of your youth. An artistic triumph of an album.

Up Next: The Rest of the 'Best'!

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