Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Top 30 ALBUMS of 2010: Part Three

As is custom, a new decade ushers in an abundance of ideas. It seemed as if every artist or band created some form of music this year and when it was good then hell, it was good. Album sales continue to peter off but somehow the creative process flourished. The album, a medium of conversation that critics felt was being eroded, is back as a talking social point across the world. This final part- of three parts-- looks at the very best of the year and how hip/hop records have totally dominated the year. Here we go:

1: Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West returns after a forgettable past year and he’s immediately astride the current resurgence in hip/hop. Monster grooves for days amid the subservient lyrics. How he manages to swirl Jay Z, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver into it is his own secret. Runaway name-checks his ego and those who put up with it over a soulful groove but nothing tops the no-holds barred Power, with its catchy yet deft chorus. So Appalled is self-depreciation magnified with a sense of sarcasm. West also continues his hot streak as king of reinvention; he juxtaposes Pharrell Williams and a Foxy Brown sample to great effect on Don’t Stop. Ditto for the retro vibe of Devil in a New Dress. Devil, indeed.

2: Joanna Newsom

Have One on Me

In the end, love or hate the format, Newsom has yet again successfully pushed the boundaries of her art-form up a notch. She has forced us to view contemporary music as progressive and clever. This feat mirrors the re-positioning of pop that Bjork achieved in the 1990s as well as the way M.I.A viciously detonated the genre with third-world consciousness a mere decade later. Newsom may never be seen as revolutionary as those women but that’s exactly where all this is heading. What she shares with them is a stubborn, singular vision that will have its way and succeed despite being antithetical to everything else around it. Similarly, she may never reinvent sensuality as rabidly as Tori Amos did nor be as hallucinatory as Kate Bush in full flight. Neither is this some sort of Joni Mitchell-like folk revivalism. Instead Newsom resides somewhere betwixt them all in a fantastic web of complexity. And in this lovely process that lasts for two hours, she has given us yet another great album.

3: Janelle Monae

The ArchAndroid

Dance or Die is a nifty club number with a stunning guitar rave up towards its end. Faster flames out into a Badu-esque last few minutes that literally bring the funk curtain down on any thoughts of insincere flattery. Locked Inside juxtaposes her lovelorn vocals with a warm chorus and rhythms that wash over in seamless bliss. Come Alive literally does just that under her screams and electronic guitars. Oh Maker is a simplistic ballad but the multiple-vocal work is brilliantly layered to full effect. Mushrooms and Roses, a track dipped into so much Prince-like energy that by the time the electric guitars trip in you’ve already died and gone to heaven. These are simple songs but when the music is this glorious then it feels miles ahead of anything else R&B has now sake for Badu and Santi White. Cold War and Tightrope, the first two singles, both gloriously expand on Monae’s funk credentials. Tightrope evinces so much dirty funk that it’s hard to imagine your midsection not quivering under its command. Cold War ups the amps with its horns and irresistible beats. At such groovy moments, she becomes inhabited by a huge source of proto-funk, the source origin I’m still trying to figure out but all those years hanging around with Outkast have clearly influenced her.

4: Big Boi

Sir Lucious Leftfoot: Son of Chico Dusty

A stunning opus that serves as a tool of red-hot revenge against his many naysayers. It doesn’t feature a single Dre moment either in its near hour long spell. Patton’s gift has always been to produce a comfort zone for others around him to bloom Tangerine, a clear interpolation of Eve’s Tambourine—gets a star turn by T.I but Patton hijacks parts with some brilliant wordplay. After their magic on her own opus, Janelle Monae turns up to direct the action on Be Still. Sir Lucious sees him taking more centre stage though. Follow Us is pure black swagger that takes a swipe at Jive (‘before the fame I was the s-it/now I’m just big’). He even drags the overrated Gucci Mane into some potent lines on Shine Blockas before stealing back all the thunder. Daddy Fat Sax finds him in his best tongue-tying form, almost seeming to show off his level of flow and emceeing. Lead single Shutterbug creeps over a steady 808 groove replete with shimmering textures. Turns Me On features a jazzy chorus and Joi, beautifully refrained as always, as Patton changes up his flow to deliver yet again.

5: Sufjan Stevens

The Age of ADZ
The immediate difference between The Age of Adz and its predecessors though is the fact that instead of interpolations of ideas, Stevens now is sharing real, actual things that we’ve all felt during our lives. The relatable factor is what makes the opener Futile Devices touching even amid his trademark acoustic arrangement. I Walked, the standout, starts out with a quasi-R&B beat but mutates into a mournful wall of reverb that ricochets so sumptuously that it’s exhilarating and sad at the same time. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same Sufjan Stevens we’ve thought on as a Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, Republican-voting and lily white moralist the past decade.

6: Summer Camp

Young EP

Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey are more than lovers; they’re the duo behind Summer Camp, the duo responsible for the year’s best EP. It’s just over twenty minutes but the breezy brilliance contained on these six songs should be criminal: Jake Ryan features Sankey’s easy vocals wrapping around a lithe beat but it’s so damned catchy that it shows up the distance other electro-pop bands have to catch up to. Why Don’t You Stay features a newer blues hybrid than that coming from bands like Best Coast. Round the Moon sounds ethereal with its pockets of day-glo beats. Was it Worth It loops the opposing vocals into a neat, tidy ribbon but still feels fresh. Veronica Sawyer slumbers drunkenly along but when Sankey repeats the line, ’I’ve got so much more than this’, over and over again then it’s the stuff of greatness, leaving the listener humbled yet totally indebted.

7: Twin Shadow


We’ve spent such a long time trying to unearth the latest Prince reinvention that we haven’t realized that indie’s real hero remain David Bowie. Twin Shadow is George Lewis Jr, who is Dominican-born. Yes indie-heads, you’re newest messiah isn’t white but as assorted as his masterful music. If Bradford Cox is reinventing shoegaze as mini-operas then Twin Shadow’s debut is bringing the 80s pop scene back massively. Everything is technically masterfully in place, all the vocal work tweaked to perfection, just as Bowie does it. Tether Beats slams so subtlety that the vocals seem like ghostly musings. Slow reverses that order, pasting its voice as the main tool. The nostalgia is overwhelming but brilliantly so and voila, like FrYars last year, this is the best batch of pop songs by a new artist.

8: M.I.A

MAYA panders too much to expected fame, is an imperfect blueprint, rails too hard to be noticed and bloats on its own excess...all traits that are uniquely American. All M.I.A has done is captured these elements, jotted them down and delivered a Sandburg-esque ode to a country she must surely love and hate in equal measure. Indeed, that is the uncompromising sentiment that hovers around this record. Hate her now but it’s also worth asking that if this is her ‘worst’ album then how comes it’s still ten times more interesting than anything her counterparts can produce even at their best?

9: Tanya Stephens


Infallible continues Stephens’ trend of jetting away from the crowd even while exploring the same issues. She’s added so much more melody too: No Strings Attached is a perfect example of this. The song examines the current state of the ‘sex buddy’ system but never sounds dated or trite. Elsewhere, social and ethical responsibility are explored, particularly the struggles of the discriminated and women. What Stephens does better than her peers is bring a point across without being preachy. Still Alive raps hypocrisy square on its finger. The title track is dedicated to her daughter and is a precious examination of her own life and legacy. She maintains her femininity though without the crassness dominating the dancehall culture with tasty tracks like Try Me (‘try me/ when you climb up on it/ you a go think/ you Spanish-fly me’) and Bury a Bone that’s a devilish ditty.

10: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Before Today

There’s always been some untested genius level in Ariel Pink but here, finally, it gets tastefully measured on the stunning Before Today. If the opener Hot Body Rub serves as a mere introduction then consider what follows as a smorgasbord of the most filling post-punk air you’ve had the privilege of inhaling in a while. He’s kept it full of fun too: Fright Night (Nevermore) is a sun-drenched scare that fits best in dreams as well as Halloween. Butt-House Blondies best illustrates the lo-fi recording tactic of Pink to give his textures the extra cheese and glam. This is punk for contemporary ears; ears that can wax metrosexual on Menopause Man without a second thought.


2010, by and large represented the comeback of the single as an event instead of merely being a tool to drive album sales. This final bloc of songs features Kanye West’s debut as well as his battle with Joanna Newsom and Janelle Monae for supremacy. The song—as a sprawling epic—is back. Here goes:

1: Joanna Newsom

Good Intentions Paving Company

Any traveller by night will tell you that the long drive to (or back, depending) of any trip is the time most do their thinking. Put a broken-heart record on and your life falls into precious minutes of recollection. It’s a reduction that touches us all and here, finally, Newsom zeroes in on the terra firma that we felt her aesthetic was too highbrow for. With her harp tucked away for a melodic piano and drums, magically piped in at just the right moments, Good Intentions Paving Company rolls up so many different styles that it leaves one devastated with its humanness.

2: Joanna Newsom

Have One on Me

Who says a song can’t unspool like a finely-written novella? Surely not Newsom, a woman who is prone to sprawling, epic ideas that –when juxtaposed to the harpsichord—is like nothing else in contemporary music. The title track from her current album takes a beautiful leap near the two minute mark, delving much deeper into the life of Lola Montez than Wikipedia ever did. Over a span of eleven minute, we are treated to Lola’s encounters with King Ludwig I of Bavaria (lovingly called ‘Daddy Long legs’) and the emotional delusion suffered. Towards the end when things get truly frantic, Newsom tosses off breathless gaggles like, ‘I remember everything/down to the sound of you shaving-/ the scrape of your razor/ the dully-abrading black hair/that remained…’ and, ‘I saw a star fall into the sky/ like a chunk of thrown coal/ as if God himself spat/ like a cornered rat…’ with so much ease that the sheer mastery is blinding.

3: Kanye West feat. Rick Ross, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver


Conceived in Hawaii of all places, Monster flows red-hot like lava from a rampant volcano. The overriding theme here is violence and it matters little who grabs the mike and passes it along: Rick Ross thugs on it a lil’ bit then it’s unto Jigga , who rolls it to Minaj and she drops a lethal clocking before rolling it on to Yeezy who gleefully brings it on home.

4: Cee-lo Green

Fuck You

It’s only on a closer examination that one realizes that the target for Cee-Lo’s rant is the guy who’s stolen his woman from him but that doesn’t mean she’s spared; the line, ‘f-uck you too’, takes sufficient care of her. It’s a damning kiss off, one where he lists her need for materialism as greater for emotional connection and no one—I mean no one—can smooth-talk us into feeling his pain like him.

5: Kanye West


A marvel of construction, Power builds itself from a sample of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, a fitting riff for Kanye to lose himself in. This funk riot long withheld is the best self-hate rap tale since Eminem dropped The Way I Am ten years ago.

6: Shad

Rose Garden

The Canadian has long perfected his conscience rap shtick but Rose Garden rises to highest ground possible due to the smartly-configured one-liners (‘those who have eyes/ should act like it’) juxtaposed to some retro soul music.

7: Big Boi feat. T.I


Tasty rap treat.

8: Sufjan Stevens

I Walked

Loosely based on Royal Robertson’s tumultuous life after his wife left in 1975, Sufjan soulfully twins it with his own apparent loss of faith recording this album.

9: Summer Camp

Veronica Sawyer

Even if you weren’t aware that Veronica Sawyer was the character Wynonna Ryder played in Heathers, the tone of lead singer Elizabeth Sankey makes the feminist intent resoundingly clear. The song conjures up a hazy imagery of all those cheesy parties in film where the heroine is the social outcast, underappreciated yet totally headstrong. Sankey manoeuvres her sublime vocals with so much sadness, that where she repeats the line, ‘I’ve got so much more than this,’, it becomes a frightening yet realistic mantra of what every youngster hates the most: the feeling of being trapped forever within their social limitations.

10: Janelle Monae


The fembot gets totally rocking.

11: Kanye West

So Appalled/ Devil in a New Dress

if My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is West finally embracing his inner demon then Devil in a New Dress grabs the women in his life—his rich, fabulous, sinful life—and its shady ties involved into one big, brilliant mess. So Appalled is its sinister twin and just as devastatingly brilliant.

12: M.I.A


Runs an exhausting six minutes but damned if it doesn’t crashes up against a wall of baille funk, ganja references and, most obviously, alcoholism.

13: Janelle Monae


More conventional blues than what we’re used to but yet again Monae bleeds more funk out of minimalism than all her contemporaries put together.

14: Janelle Monae

Cold War

Tripped-out, space funk as only she can.

15: Nedry

Squid Cat Battle

A lovely, screeching chaos.

16: The Morning Benders


A sad yet poignant tale of recollection.

17: Joanna Newsom

Soft as Chalk

Where our heroine, in her best Tori Amos-esque garb shrieks at us winningly the line, ‘there is no treason where there is only lawlessness’.

18: Xiu Xiu

Gray Death

Picks up where The Leash left off as Jaime Stewart unwinds his fidgety gayness into self-loathing.

19: Janelle Monae

Come Alive (War of the Roses)

Literally does just that under her screams and electronic guitars.

20: Joanna Newsom


A wicked experiment that juxtaposes her lovely voice with strings and violins. ‘I am easy/ easy to keep/ honey, you please me/ even in your sleep’, she croons, channeling Kate Bush lusciously throughout.