20 Albums of 2010
Kanye’s ‘Fantasy’ conquered reality; the Black Keys locked into a groove; Arcade Fire burned down the suburbs
With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West made music as sprawlingly messy as his life. When he wasn’t feuding with Matt Lauer or bugging out on Twitter, Kanye was building hip-hop epics, songs full of the kind of grandiose gestures that only the foolish attempt and only the wildly talented pull off. The more he piled on ”“ string sections, Elton John piano solos, vocoder freakouts, Bon Iver cameos, King Crimson and Rick James samples ”“ the better the music got. Never has Kanye rhymed so hilariously (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/I put the pussy in a sarcophagus”) or been so insightful about his relationship-torpedoing faults. From the bracing prog-rock of ”˜Power’ to the spooky grandeur of ”˜Runaway’ to the shape-shifting ”˜Hell of a Life,’ he made all other music seem dimmer and duller. Is the album dark? Sure. Twisted? Of course. But above all, it’s beautiful.
The duo boils it down on their best record yet: vivid tunes stripped bare and rubbed raw, with hot splashes of colour and hooks popping through like compound fractures. ”˜Howlin’ for You’ smears gnarly blues over a glam beat cribbed from Gary Glitter’s ”˜Rock and Roll Part 2,’ while a cover of Jerry Butler’s broken-hearted hit ”˜Never Give You Up’ takes Dan Auerbach’s falsetto-flashing soulman persona to the next level. It’s rock minimalism pushed to the max.
Two rock giants, one largely forgotten, rekindle a friendship and make music that ranks with their best. Producer T Bone Burnett delivers his most spectacular production in memory, filled with shining steel guitar, chortling brass and gospel-time choirs. Ultimately, it’s Russell’s voice that shines brightest, drawing on the entire history of American popular music in its canny, vulnerable, knowing croon.
Arcade Fire don’t do anything small ”“ so leave it to the Montreal collective to make an album of vast, orchestral rock that locates the battle for the human soul amid big houses and manicured lawns. The Suburbs is the band’s most adventurous album yet: See the psychotic speed strings on ”˜Empty Room,’ the Crazy Horse rush of ”˜Month of May,’ the synth-pop disco of ”˜Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).’ Win Butler and his wife, RÃ©gine Chassagne, sing about suburban boredom, fear of change and wanting to have a kid of their own ”“ always scaling their intimate confessions to arena-rock levels and finding beauty wherever they look.
What does Jamey Johnson keep under all of that hair? Songs. Nashville’s gruffest and grittiest star turns out to be its most reliable traditionalist, a Music Row pro who can write a song for every emotional season. Johnson pulled out a whole slew of them ”“ 25, clocking in north of 105 minutes ”“ for his double-disc fourth album: acoustic confessions and rugged boogie blues, big weepers and grim reapers, cover tunes and novelty ditties, not to mention ”˜California Riots’ and ”˜Playing the Part,’ a pair of fiercely funny, unrepentantly redneck swipes at the frou-frou blue states.
Contra was the album where Vampire Weekend discovered they could do just about anything: dubby, slo-mo gorgeousness, clattering pseudo-punk, African guitar riffs, choral swells, songs that rhyme “horchata” with “Aranciata” and “Masada.” Ezra Koenig wrote dense lyrics about young love and Third World strife, but no matter how meditative he got, his melodic skills never failed him: Rarely do songs this lushly produced feel so buoyant or seem to zip by so quickly. By the time you marvel at the spacy ballad ”˜I Think UR a Contra’ or get “Your sword’s grown old and rusty/Burnt beneath the rising sun” (from ”˜Giving Up the Gun’) stuck in your head, you realise these guys are as much about pure pleasure as anything else.
Arriving after three years of mixtapes, guest spots and merciless hype, the debut LP from the Canadian -actor-turned-rapper delivered the goods with sumptuous beats, airtight rhymes and nuanced introspection. Drake’s sleepy, soulful flow gave his morning-after reflections on the high life an undercurrent of irony. He’s the definitive star of hip-hop’s tortured post-Kanye era: a guy who can’t quite decide if “I’ve been up for four days gettin’ money” is a brag or a burden.
Keep waiting, Jimmy Page ”“ he’s not coming back. Plant followed up his dreamy roots-romp Raising Sand (2007) with an album that was edgier and rootsier: Plant and his bandleader, guitarist Buddy Miller, pursue ancient songs and modern tangents with a black-light glow on this psychedelic exploration of blues and country, covering Los Lobos, Townes Van Zandt, the slow-core band Low and public-domain gospel as if they are all stops on the true road to nirvana.
“Let’s be honest, that last Relapse CD was ehhh,” Eminem rapped on Recovery, which turned out to be the post-rehab victory lap that the schlocky Relapse wasn’t. Dominating radio, Eminem was back on top in 2010, but he was also older and wiser: a scared dad who’d been to drug-addict hell and made it back with his rhyme skills intact. When he pledges to stay sober on the hit ”˜Not Afraid,’ you know the man is hellbent serious.
James Murphy convenes his team of New York punk-funk troopers for a heavy-duty breakup album, tunnelling out of the emotional wreckage with the help of Nancy Whang’s keyboard glimmers and Pat Mahoney’s monster drums. Murphy testifies about adult love gone bad (”˜I Can Change’) over a host of electronic dance styles, while the goofball anthem ”˜Drunk Girls’ offers a motto for casual lovers everywhere: “I believe in waking up together.”