THE TOP 50 RADIOHEAD SONGS OF ALL TIME

Posted February 27, 2011 by melliott
Categories: Music

It’s been a week now since Radiohead dropped a brand new album called The King of Limbs out of thin air upon its adoring fans, and after probably no less than two dozen listens I feel comfortable placing two of its songs on a list that I’ve wanted to post for a long time- a countdown of the 50 Best Radiohead tracks ever. This is a daunting task to be sure, but I stand behind my selections, however heartbreaking it was too have to leave off a great many solid tunes. I’ll try to keep it brief to a one sentence analysis of each song, and for consistency’s sake will refer to Radiohead as “the band” and their lead singer Thom Yorke simply by his first name.

During my process of ranking these songs, which I actually did out to 100, I found it interesting to compare how the band’s albums stack up against each other. By assigning values equal to each song’s ranking placement (#1=100 pts, #2=99 pts, etc) and treating all songs outside of the top 100 as one point, and then averaging those values, here is how the albums compare:

OK Computer 75.9

Kid A 62.9

In Rainbows 60.8

The Bends 49.9

Amnesiac 48.2

Hail to the Thief 34.5

The King of Limbs 29.8

Pablo Honey 20.3

Interesting, right? Now, on to the countdown. Enjoy!

#50: Optimistic (Kid A, 2000)

The first single from the groundbreaking Kid A benefits from its impressive build and relative accessibility.

#49: Down Is The New Up (In Rainbows 2, 2008)

Eerie organ keys and and almost discordant melody add intrigue to this standout from the band’s In Rainbows B-Side album.

#48: Punch Up At A Wedding (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

One of the band’s grooviest tracks to date, as a sauntering piano blues riff combines with a rolling bass line and gives Thom an opportunity to show off his impressive vocal range.

#47: The Bends (The Bends, 1995)

The title track to the band’s breakthrough record catches them at their most carefree and rocky, and showcases one of the best hooks of their early material.

#46: Subterranean Homesick Alien (OK Computer, 1997)

Surreal, lush and atmospheric, this early track on the best album this band or any other band has ever made was just a taste of what was to come in the tracks, and the years to come.

#45: Thinking About You (Pablo Honey, 1993)

A simple but pure acoustic track that still holds a place in my heart, this very early song showcases the band’s knack for balladry and songwriting.

#44: Go To Sleep (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

For those wanting a return to the band’s rock roots after the experimental but brilliant Kid A and Amnesiac efforts, this track certainly filled that void in an album that was perfectly and blissfully out of focus.

#43: Videotape (In Rainbows, 2007)

I’ve always felt that the band’s greatest strength lies in its ability to create beautiful, softer sounding songs, and “Videotape” is no exception, even though it continues to be a slight disappointment to me considering how much more it could have been if they had not settled for such a subtle arrangement.

#42: Lotus Flower (The King of Limbs, 2011)

The lone single from a suddenly released album that straddles the line between EP and full length is unique for its ominous and repetitive bass line that evokes memories of Joy Division sound, not to mention Thom’s almost constant falsetto…and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the awesomeness of the video.

#41: Planet Telex (The Bends, 1995)

There are certain moments while listening to an album when you can realize that a band has made a huge stride forward, and the opening five seconds of this opening track do exactly that, packing four minutes of intense, atmospheric guitar with a voice that has to be from the heavens.


#40: Like Spinning Plates (Amnesiac, 2001 and I Might Be Wrong EP, 2001)

This track added to the experimentalism of 2001’s Amnesiac as Thom sang the lyrics backward and then recorded them backward again to make them forward again, but the best version of this gorgeous and foreboding song comes on the EP, with Thom playing solo on the piano.

#39: I Might Be Wrong (Amnesiac, 2001)

Wild, dancey two step beats and propulsive electric guitar separate this dark track from much of the band’s catalog.

#38: How Can You Be Sure (Fake Plastic Trees Single, 1995)

Back when the band was still lovesick and sentimental, it was songs like this that really propelled them from being a good band into a great band; more musically accomplished material would follow, but essentially perfect love songs like this one have stood the test of time, complete with self-affirming choruses like “I don’t want you/ Anymore” that came to mean a lot to me over the course of my early adulthood.

#37: Jigsaw Falling Into Place (In Rainbows, 2007)

Easily the most upbeat and intense track on the astoundingly strong In Rainbows, Jigsaw never releases or absorbs any of its own momentum, while still carrying the band’s signature ominous sound; it ends before you can catch your breath, but you remember when Thom proclaims that “the beat goes round and round!”

#36: Blow Out (Pablo Honey, 1993)

The closing track of Pablo Honey gave us a bit of a glimpse into what the band would accomplish in the feature, as a dreamy bass line and Thom’s falsetto add an emotional element that the rest of the album lacks, and a shoegazer guitar closes out the job; however, if you can find the subtler, more powerful acoustic version from a performance on Vancouver radio with the Posies, it shines even brighter.

#35: Codex (The King of Limbs, 2011)

There is an added dimension to the strongest track on the band’s most difficult to grasp release of its career, a gorgeously orchestrated electronic piano ballad that showcases excellent timing with its lifted, atmospheric horns that are almost reminiscent of an Air track, but with Thom’s voice.

#34: High and Dry (The Bends, 1995)

Perhaps the band’s cheesiest ballad to date, there is something about it that just sticks to your soul- the simple chord progression, incredibly honest and hopeless lyrics, and gorgeous falsetto chorus.

#33: Polyethelyne I & II (Airbag: How Am I Driving? EP, 1997)

This track combines a soft acoustic number with perhaps the band’s most triumphant and confident rock track to date, culminating in a rare song from the band to literally pump yourself up to.

#32: Man O’War/ Big Boots (Unreleased, recordings between 1995 and 1998)

Sadly, this song never made its way onto record and never will, but not for a lack of trying- the band played it tirelessly on tour for nearly four years but could never pull it into the perfect form that they required of it in studio…which is shame, because it would have been epic (did I mention that there are worms and a poisoned drawf involved???)

#31: You And Whose Army (Amnesiac, 2001)

Recorded in an AM radio style for its distant opening half, this song evolves into an explosive and powerful coda, complete with some of Thom’s very best wailing, as he chases ghost horses.

#30: 15 Step (In Rainbows, 2007)

Immediately gripping from its onset, this opening track evolves with perfection behind a shimmering guitar riff, slowing down and speeding back up with reckless abandon with unparalleled charisma (“ETC, ETC!”), complete with screaming school children and a bass line coda for the ages.

#29: Idioteque (Kid A, 2000)

For as much of a polarizing departure that Kid A was from its predecessors, nothing sounded stranger than Idioteque, from its synthesized, gyrating techno beat to its fearful, spastic vocalizations (Ice Age Coming!); seeing this live is an experience, especially after realizing how forward looking it was musically at the time of its release.

#28: The National Anthem (Kid A, 2000)

Easily the most turbulent, thrusting and ultimately badass bass line in the band’s entire repertoire, as the track progresses into a chaotic yet perfectly orchestrated traffic jam of horns, strings and percussion through its massive coda.

#27: In Limbo (Kid A, 2000)

The first song to immediately capture my attention when I first started listening to bootlegged concerts in the summer of 2000 was the surreal “In Limbo”, a track that builds with a steady bass line and purgatory images revealing the band at their darkest and most paranoid.

#26: Motion Picture Soundtrack (Kid A, 2000)

A sparse, haunting rendition of an early live acoustic favorite managed to find itself capping off the greatest album of the first decade of the new millennium, complete with impeccable production, and was the perfect goodbye as Thom farewells “I will see you/ In the next life…”

#25: Creep (Pablo Honey, 1993)

The band’s mega hit single has lost favor with its hard core fans over the years for its accessibility, but in reality, when taken out of context from what the band was to become, it truly was the perfect mid 90s lovesick alt song; I serenaded many a sorority girl thanks to its easy, repetitive chords and dominated many a karaoke bar with that strained falsetto, so that has to count for something.

#24: Arpeggi (In Rainbows, 2007)

There’s almost an underwater feel to this shockingly lush and immaculate song, as rolling percussion, and submerged guitar rhythms combine with great vocal work, eventually building into a show-stopping crescendo and perhaps one of the most underrated tracks in the band’s catalog.

#23: Airbag (OK Computer, 1997)

What should a song sound like if it is to begin to greatest, most revolutionary album to ever grace the Planet Earth? Exactly like this. Nothing else to say, and I’ll never forget that sunny July afternoon in 1997 when I anxiously popped this CD into my car and heard the opening notes. The rest is history. (Pardon me for breach of the aforementioned rules on this one song).

#22: Talk Show Host (Street Spirit Single, 1996)

It is still a mystery to me why this brilliant, fearful masterpiece didn’t make the OK Computer cut, while the overly rocky and otherwise slight political piece “Electioneering” did—perhaps that would have make that album too perfect for its own existence, and the apocalypse would have commenced immediately.

#21: Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends, 1995)

Probably the most perfectly heartbreaking acoustic ballad ever composed by anyone, plain and simple.

#20: I Will (Hail to the Thief, 2003 and Com Lag EP 2004)

From the standpoint of pure melody, I think this is the most gorgeous song that the band has ever written, and although it is incredibly simple in and of itself, the addition of drums on the live Com Lag EP version really brings out all of its potential.

#19: A Wolf At The Door (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

Perhaps the saddest song the band has ever written (for no immediately apparent reason, which is to its credit) , the track combines its dark organ and guitar with Thom practically beatboxing the lyrics before shifting into a heartbreaking chorus.

#18: Karma Police (OK Computer, 1997)

Clearly the mainstream centerpiece to the juggernaut that was OK Computer, it is too easy to overlook how brilliant the piano driven Karma Police is, with its tempo changes and ultimately harmonizing coda, perhaps best demonstrated in this remarkable live performance on the Letterman Show.

#17: Reckoner (In Rainbows, 2007)

I suppose you could argue that this should be number one and I might be inclined to agree with you, as Thom’s falsetto soars through an astonishing melody and complexly orchestrated midsection in which the song comes to a virtual halt before picking up powerfully through the finish with strings and tambourines.

#16: No Surprises (OK Computer, 1997)

The genius in this absolutely hypnotizing classic is the contrast between its modest, sarcastically gorgeous lullaby melody and its dark, cynical lyrics, as it slowly builds into more than one can bear as Thom pleads for “No alarms, and no surprises/ Please-” with an epic, aquaphobic video.

#15: True Love Waits (I Might Be Wrong EP, 2001)

A pure, stripped down acoustic track that became somewhat of a live phenomenon before the band finally released a perfectly recorded bootleg version, this song proved after the decidedly experimental departures of Kid A and Amnesiac that the band had not lost its penchant for impossibly addictive guitar melodies- not by a long shot.

#14: Nude (In Rainbows, 2007)

A live favorite for over a decade as “Big Ideas”, the band finally put the song to record with masterfully intimate perfection, as the beauty of this song is and always has been completely in its subtlety and restraint; although I lament the omission of an entire verse and that glockenspiel that made the live versions appear to have top five potential, beggars can’t be choosers.

#13: 2+2 =5 (Hail to the Thief, 2003)

Forget the fantastic build, political eccentricities and mathematically diabolical title, this song may actually contain the best single moment in the accomplished band’s entire catalog around the two minute mark, when the seemingly soft and pretty guitar line explodes without warning into a sprawling concoction of distortion and pounding drumming as Thom screams the words “Pay attention” with unexplainable disregard for his own vocal chords before the song shifts again and ends abruptly before we can even process what the hell has happened.

#12: Just (The Bends, 1995)

The band’s best pure rock moment, without compare, and with a shocking and poignant video to boot, this was one of the first “wow” moments where we realized that we could be witnessing something very special indeed, and we wouldn’t have been more correct had we said that 2+2 equaled 4.

#11: Life In A Glass House (Amnesiac, 2001)

In a striking, admittedly polarizing departure from its already fanatic cult live acoustic following, the band decided the impart elements of a New Orleans funeral dirge to this sweeping epic that closed the most innovative album they have ever made, complete with horns and some of Thom’s very best vocal work ever through its conclusion.

#10: Lucky (OK Computer, 1997)

Perhaps Johnny Greenwood’s finest moment, as his soaring guitar solo through the conclusion defines this dark, foreboding and ultimately impeccable track.

#9: Exit Music (OK Computer, 1997)

An essay in song structure, as hopeless, melancholy acoustic guitar verses absolutely explode into an amazingly cynical vocal performance by Thom, who in an escalating bravado suggests that “We hope your rules and wisdom choke you” before reiterating that “We hope that you choke” as the song collapses back onto itself.

#8: All I Need (In Rainbows, 2007)

Opening with a deep string arrangement, heavy bass and a dancey drum rhythm that rolls along with suave persistence, what could have been a simple romantic tune succeeds as one of the band’s greatest songs ever behind glockenspiel notes, deep strings and an eerie simplicity before exploding into a piano-based crescendo.

#7: How To Disappear Completely (Kid A, 2000)

The band’s penchant for gorgeous, melancholy acoustic tracks is epitomized by this classic, which expands upon that element with its slow build and unorthodox picking pattern that picks up a symphonic string backing as it cascades toward its conclusion behind one of Thom’s best falsetto moments.

#6: Pyramid Song (Amnesiac, 2001)

Astonishing, lush and fearful, featuring dense layers of piano and an unusual time signature that drummer Phil Selway absolutely dominates in one of the best moments of his career throughout the track’s ominous sound and lyrical imagery.

#5: Everything In Its Right Place (Kid A, 2000)

Ambient organ notes open this album on the strongest note imaginable, as “Everything in its Right Place” is a vast, hypnotic and surprising yet immediate beginning that showcases the band’s shift in style with Thom’s spot-on, fuzzy vocals and eerie tone.

#4: Let Down (OK Computer, 1997)

The best single vocal moment from Thom’s illustrious career comes towards the end of this gorgeous track (roughly from 4:00-4:25, probably a big part of why this song is rarely, if ever, played live), but not before it demonstrates and amazing melody and some incredible lyrical imagery.

#3: The Tourist (OK Computer, 1997)

Perhaps the most overlooked track in the band’s entire catalog, OK Computer’s closing track is also its saddest and most intimate, showing restraint and never really completely releasing through its fantastic melody and Thom’s amazing vocal performance before ending with a single goose bump-inducing goodbye note.

#2: Paranoid Android (OK Computer, 1997)

This will always be recognized as the band’s epic track, the song that took them to another level; through a complex shift between four exhaustively different melodies and tempos, there is a level of musical and compositional ingenuity here that defies explanation, complete with Johnny Greenwood’s startling space guitar sounds that shift between the song’s stages (2:42, 5:39).

#1: Street Spirit (The Bends, 1995)

This simple, heartbreaking plucking melody builds with its percussion, subtle electric guitar pattern, soaring vocals and string elements into what I believe to be the band’s defining moment over its final minute and a half- a literally perfect song that I will always remember as the tune that began my obsession with this band. “Immerse yourself in love.” Indeed.

WINE OF THE MONTH- FEBRUARY

Posted February 25, 2011 by melliott
Categories: Wine

I’m don’t consume incredible amounts of Beaujolais. This wine, produced in a warm region south of Burgundy and made from the Gamay grape, is widely consumed in France as a table wine. A light-bodied, fruity wine, Beaujolais is meant to be consumed young and pairs well with a variety of food. The tricky part of this type wine is sorting out the swill, of which there is plenty, from the true hidden gems that manage to show a measure of complexity in their youth. On the positive side, when one is able to find a balanced and nuanced Beaujolais wine, it rarely comes with an intimidating price tag. The wine I’ve chosen to feature this month is easily the best example of the Gamay grape I have ever tried, with my limited experience mind you.

GEORGES DUBOEUF JEAN DESCOMBES BEAUJOALIS 2009, 91 Points, $15, 8000 Cases Made- Lots of smoky mineral and ripe red fruit on the nose. Medium-bodied with lively, juicy black cherry, red licorice and raspberry flavors that pick up a decisive note of smoke before evolving into a blast of floral spice and mineral. Long finish with firm tannins adding structure.

WINE OF THE MONTH- JANUARY

Posted January 30, 2011 by melliott
Categories: Wine

Here’s a wine that shows generous complexity at a bargain value year after year. The 2007 vintage was featured as the #77 Wine of the Year for 2010 by Wine Spectator, and the 2008 has just begun to hit the markets with pretty wide availability. Australian wines often fall victim to criticism for their ripe, fruit-forward style, but this blend shows complexity, finesse, and expresses its terroir well for this region.

PETER LEHMANN CLANCY’S BAROSSA VALLEY 2007, 90 Points, $15, 8000 Cases Produced- A spicy blend, with tobacco, cigar box, cedar and pepper notes mingling with dark raspberry and black cherry fruit. Tightly wrapped and concise, lingering long with and element of vanilla bean beneath the earthy spice.

THIRD COAST OLE ALE VERTICAL TASTING, New Year’s Eve 2010

Posted January 1, 2011 by melliott
Categories: Wine

I am staying in this New Year’s as I leave for the Caribbean tomorrow, so while watching football and listening to my Best of 2010 playlist on Itunes, I decided to break into the old beer cellar in an attempt to clear room for a new, non-liquid inhabitant. Long before I caught the wine bug, it was the complexities of micro-brewed beer that really turned my palate onto truly enjoying and tasting alcoholic beverages. Bell’s Kalamazoo brewery has been my favorite American producer for nearly a decade, so I decided to taste three vintages of their incredible barleywine, the Third Coast Old Ale. While I agree that unlike wine, beer is merely a recipe that should be able to be reproduced identically with successive vintages, bottle age as well as many other factors can impact its quality, and I was surprised at the subtle differences between the 2001, 2002 and 2003 editions of this beer after spending some time in my cellar. Not as surprisingly, my preferences corresponded directly to their age, in ascending order; as good as the 2003 was, the 2001 was on a completely different level, opening up into another dimension, especially as it warmed, while the 2002 seemed to straddle the line in between. Here are some more detailed notes:

2003: The most carbonated on the pour, with a small ring of head gracing the perimeter of the glass. Subtle aromas of yeast and subtle citrus behind the sweet toffee malt. Dark, dirty flavors of burnt caramel, banana, rum-raisin, dark Godiva chocolate and bitter Turkish coffee combine with bitter hops and a bit of heat through the long finish. Lingers with a burnt, bready note. IN A WORD: Aggressive.

2002: Pours with a medium amount of carbonation but hardly any head. Aromas of caramel and mocha bean dominate. Extremely creamy body of chocolate and coffee bean lead into well-balanced hops. Creamiest texture of the three, with a long, enjoyable finish of its rich, smooth malts. Impressively balanced throughout and lacking the burnt note that makes the 2003 seem a bit off; I seemed to drink this the most quickly of the three. IN A WORD: Streamlined.

2001: Pours headless, cidery and thick. Rich aromas of molasses, caramel and toffee. Incredibly soft and rich body, with a complex combination of anise, raisin-nut and black plum that evolves into notes of caramel, brown sugar and coffee bean flavors, leading into a soft backbone of hops. This has a dark citrus beginning that the other two do not, adding an extra element of complexity. Endless finish with hops and spice revealing themselves and picking up steam beneath the maltier elements. The best beer I have tasted in many years. IN A WORD: Complex.

WINE OF THE MONTH- DECEMBER

Posted December 17, 2010 by melliott
Categories: Wine

With the Holidays soon approaching, it is always advisable to have some bubbly on hand to celebrate the season. Sparkling wine is both festive and warming this time of year, but finding value in this style can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, especially if you are dead set on drinking the genuine article from a little place called Champagne, France. Instead, take a shot on a sparkler produced by a well known producer just off the Silverado Trail in Napa called Mumm. I actually had the chance to visit the winery in July, and while it was quite busy and even a bit touristy, I was impressed by the serene views looking west into the valley as well as the wine. Their recently released Brut Prestige non-vintage is widely available and was recently recognized as the #48 ranked wine of the year by the Wine Spectator. Pop the cork, and enjoy the season!

MUMM NAPA BRUT PRESTIGE NAPA VALLEY NV, 89 POINTS, $20, 125,000 Cases Made- Lovely boquet of floral citrus and almond. Crisp, clean body of pear, green apple lead into undertones of hazelnut, almond, vanilla and subtle mineral components through the long finish. No tartness, very smooth.

WINE OF THE YEAR- 2010

Posted December 14, 2010 by melliott
Categories: Wine

2010 was an exciting year for wine, especially in the United States. Wine Spectator writer James Laube crowned the 2007 vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon the greatest of all time, Oregon’s Willamette Valley excelled with its elegant 2008 Pinot Noirs, and California’s Central Coast reached new heights with their take on Rhone varietals, highlighted at year end by Paso Robles vinter Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend, which was named the #1 wine of the year by Wine Spectator. Amazingly, five of that publication’s top six wines were Californian, a feat that has never been seen before and will likely never be seen again.

I tasted about 550 wines this year, and as I look back it is equally amazing how concentrated my tasting experiences were upon wines made in America. Part of that is due my travel choices in 2010, but it should also be noted that this year, America provided the best quality of wine for the value worldwide. With all of the hype surrounding Napa Valley, Willamette Valley and Paso Robles this year, it was easy to forget about Washington State’s 2007 vintage, which was as strong as ever before. Unique regions like Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley have long succeeded in creating dark, earthy cool climate red wines that are deeply expressive of their terroir, and some of the best wines from 2007 (and even 2008) have perfected this style. I spent some time tasting in Washington back in May, and also have sought out as many of these wines as I could at tastings and at stores in recent months. It was during that search that I stumbled upon my pick for the Wine of the Year, a wine that combines power and elegance with affordability and availability.

MY WINE OF THE YEAR FOR 2010:



J. BOOKWALTER CABERNET SAUVIGNON COLUMBIA VALLEY FORESHADOW 2007, 94 Points, $40, 1180 Cases Made-
Rich and loamy on the nose, with lots of dark chocolate and cedar aromatics. Velvety mouthfeel, incredibly textured and balanced for its depth, as piney cedar and mineral flavors lead into blackberry, black cherry, mocha bean and tobacco spice. Long finish is impossibly elegant and focused, and lingers for minutes.

WINES OF THE MONTH 2010:

JANUARY- D’Arenberg Shiraz The Stump Jump McLaren Vale, 89 Points, $10

FEBRUARY- Marchesi de Frescobaldi Tenuta di Castiglioni 2007, 93 Points, $25

MARCH- Caravan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 91 Points, $30

APRIL- Quinta do Vallado Douro Valley  2007, 91 Points, $20

MAY- Bodegas Alto Moncayo Garnacha Veraton Campo de Borja 2007, 92 Points, $30

JUNE- Argyle Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2008, 92 Points, $25

JULY- Landmark Chardonnay Overlook Sonoma-Santa Barbara-Monterey Counties 2007, 90 Points, $30

AUGUST- Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Columbia Valley, 88 Points, $10

SEPTEMBER- Dominio del Plata Susana Balbo Malbec Mendoza, 90 Points, $25

OCTOBER- Chateau Gigognan Vigne Du Regent Chateauneuf du Pape 2007, 93 Points, $40

NOVEMBER- Four Vines Zinfandel The Biker 2008, 92 Points, $25

DECEMBER- Mumm Napa Brut Prestige NV, 89 Points, $20

WINES I RATED 92 POINTS OR HIGHER, UNDER $100 A BOTTLE:

Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz Barossa Valley 2005, 95 Points, $60

Pride Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 94 Points, $65

Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2006, 94 Points, $65

Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Napa Valley 2007, 94 Points, $80

Novy Syrah Simpson Vineyard Dry Creek Valley 2007, 93 Points, $30

Orin Swift The Prisoner Napa Valley 2005, 93 Points, $35

Alto Moncayo Garnacha Campo de Borja 2007, 93 Points, $50

Sierra Cantabria Collecion Privada Rioja 2007, 93 Points, $50

Pride Merlot Napa Valley 2007, 93 Points, $55

St. Clement Orropas Napa Valley 2007, 93 Points, $55

Penner-Ash Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard Willamette Valley 2008, 93 Points, $55

Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley 2006, 93 Points, $60

Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 93 Points, $60

Landmark Pinot Noir Kanzler Sonoma Coast 2008, 93 Points, $65

Paolo Scavino Carobric Barolo Piedmonte 2005, 93 Points, $70

Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 93 Points, $70

Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2006, 93 Points, $70

Azelia Bricco Fiasco Barolo Piedmonte  2004, 93 Points, $75

Argyle Pinot Noir Spirithouse Willamette Valley 2006, 93 Points, $75

St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Star Vineyard 2006, 93 Points, $80

Chateau de Myrat Sauternes 2007, 93 Points, $40 (375 ml)

Artadi Pagos Viejos Rioja 2006 , 93 Points, $90

Sherwin Family Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2006, 93 Points, $90

Zaca Mesa Syrah Santa Ynez Valley 2006, 92 Points, $20

Bodegas Triton Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y Leon Toro 2008, 92 Points, $20

Emilio Moro Tinto Ribera del Duero 2006, 92 Points, $25

Orin Swift The Prisoner Napa Valley 2008, 92 Points, $35

Honig Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007, 92 Points, $35

Rockblock Syrah Reserve Walla Walla Valley 2006, 92 Points, $40

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, 92 Points, $40

Frank Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, 92 Points, $40

Petrolo Torrione Toscana 2006, 92 Points, $40

Le Corti Chianti Classico Don Tommaso Toscana 2005, 92 Points, $40

Atteca Armas Garnacha Old Vines Catalayud 2007, 92 Points, $40

Chateau Manior de Gay Pomerol 2004, 92 Points, $40

Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch Russian River Valley 2007, 92 Points, $45

Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2007, 92 Points, $45

Januik Cabernet Sauvignon Champoux Vineyard Columbia Valley 2007, 92 Points, $50

Ayoub Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2008, 92 Points, $50

Goldeneye Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2007, 92 Points, $50

St. Cosme Chateauneuf du Pape 2007, 92 Points, $50

Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2008, 92 Points, $60

Collemattoni Brunello di Montalcino 2004, 92 Points, $60

Argyle Pinot Noir Nuthouse Willamette Valley 2006, 92 Points, $60

Seghesio Zinfandel San Lorenzo Alexander Valley 2007, 92 Points, $60

Hawkes Cabernet Sauvignon Red Winery Road Alexander Valley 2006, 92 Points, $60

Georges Vernay Cotie Rotie Blonde du Seigneur 2005, 92 Points, $60

Sherwin Family Syrah Estate Dry CreekValley 2006, 92 Points, $70

Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Winery Hill Vineyard Willamette Valley 2006, 92 Points, $75

Mirror Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, 92 Points, $75

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Kathryn Hall Napa Valley 2005, 92 Points, $75

Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, 92 Points, $80

St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2006, 92 Points, $80

Vall Llach Priorat 2005, 92 Points, $90

HIGHEST RATED WINES I TASTED:

El Nido Jumilla 2007, 95 Points, $105

Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia Superiore Toscana 2006, 95 Points, $180

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Cascina Francia Piedmonte 2005, 94 Points, $120

Vietti Brunate Barolo Piedmonte 2005, 94 Points, $120

Pahlmeyer Red Wine Napa Valley 2005, 94 Points, $150

Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006, 94 Points, $150

Vinedos de Paganos La Nieta Rioja 2005, 94 Points, $150

Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2006, 94 Points, $150

Chateau Angelus St. Emilion 2006, 93 Points, $175

TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2010

Posted December 14, 2010 by melliott
Categories: Music

The decade began with a year full of awesome music. There were so many good albums released in 2010 that narrowing it down to only 25 proved daunting. So, before getting to those, here are five more albums that deserve mention as well:

HONORABLE MENTION:

Local Natives/ Gorilla Manor: Gorilla Manor fills the void as the “driving music” album of 2010. Harmonies reminiscent of Fleet Foxes combine through this highly listenable and consistent work, which carries a lifted, wide open and spacious sound. The lyricism is insightful and deep throughout, as solid opener “Wide Eyes” demonstrates an excitement and yearning for discovery through its chorus of “Oh to see it with my eyes/ My own eyes”, while the reminiscent “Airplanes” pays tribute to one of the band member’s deceased grandfather. “Sun Hands” turns into a sunset chant as it evolves, but the real highlights come later on, as the pretty “World News” builds and eventually combusts into soaring vocals and palpitating drums, while the more intimate, self-reflecting “Shapeshifter” succeeds purely on its gorgeous harmonies. The rockier “Camera Talk” takes the tempo up a notch with its percussion, strings, piano keys and memorable chorus “And even though I can’t be sure/ Memory tells me that these times are worth working for” and is a clear highlight, while the delicate, bittersweet “Cubism Dream” vies for standout status. There is more grandeur present on the massive “Who Knows Who Cares”, which benefits from its vibrant violin lines, as does the similar-sounding “Stranger Things.” This debut doesn’t make any giant impressions initially, but is so wonderfully listenable that it ends up sinking in deep.

No Age/ Everything In Between: On their third album, the two man duo from San Diego tones down their sound a bit, concentrating more on harmonies than on their explosive, thrashing punk rock. The results are at times middling and repetitive, but there are enough moments of brilliance here to establish this album as another solid effort. The early parts of the album don’t pull the listener in the same way the band’s last album Nouns did, but by the time they roll into the rollicking tempo and screeching guitar line of “Fever Dreaming” we recognize the reason we bought this album in the first place, and “Depletion” follows with more familiar rockability. Everything In Between falls short of Nouns as these high intensity moments are often brought down by feedback-laded instrumental tracks and tempo changes in the same vein as their debut Weirdo Rippers. Still, the poppier tracks like standout “Valley Hump Crush” showcase an almost tropical vibe above motoring percussion and add a new dimension to the band’s impressive catalog. Speaking of percussion, the slow build on “Sorts” culminates into an unbelievable drumming moment at its apex, while the intense conclusion typical of their previous albums is here in full force on the aptly titled “Shred and Transcend” and the traded vocals on the perfectly harmonized, somewhat sentimental closer “Chem Trails.”

Phantogram/ Eyelid Movies: The debut from this self-proclaimed “street beat” act draws from a variety of influences, and what it lacks in cohesion it makes up for with its catchy highlights. Opener “Mouthful of Diamonds” showcases the impressive vocal talents of Sarah Barthel, who whispers over buzzing synths, leading into standout track “When I’m Small”, with its twanging guitar line and repetitive but irresistible chorus. Her partner Josh Carter doesn’t have quite the vocal talent, and his songs lean towards the fuzzy and distorted side, drawing from Moby on tracks like “Turn It Off”, “Running From the Cops” and the stunning “Futuristic Casket”, which aren’t lacking for emotional depth, especially as the former laments “I should have been easier on you…” There are moments of subdued female vocals reminiscent of Out Hud on the punching “Bloody Palms”, while airy tracks like “As Far As I Can See” and “Let Me Go” owe their success to electropop acts like Stereolab and Brazilian Girls. The variety of sounds here can be a bit divisive at times, but as a sum of its parts, this is a strong debut and a great album for background music.

Liars/ Sisterworld: This experimental threesome from San Diego have yet to make an album that sounds anything like its predecessors, and the equally bizarre Sisterworld is no exception, and is actually a step up in quality and diversity from their most recent self-titled album. Lead singer Angus Andrew’s voice is as dark and creepy as ever here, as the ambient harmonies on opener “Scissor” explode into an apocalyptic chorus, while the anxiety shrouded in songs like “I Can Still See an Outside World” use a similar structure, opening with eerie a capella vocals before melting into distortion and chaos. A bit more interesting are the groovy “Proud Evolution” and standout “No Barrier Fun” which enter new territory for the band but still carry that same unsettling tone. The steady chant of the complex “Here Comes All The People” and the ominous buzz of “Drip” work well back to back, and add to the general feeling of uneasiness. There is quite a mix between the pretty (“Too Much, Too Much” and “Goodnight Everything”) and the horrifying (“Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”), but most of these songs work within the same framework, dripping with a deeply ingrained tension that helps the album to flow together wonderfully.

How to Dress Well/ Love Remains: Tom Krell’s lo-fi home recorded music evolves into a unique style that can best be described as a love child between Shai and Burial on Love Remains. Drawing from 1990s R & B and dubstep influences and doused in reverb and distortion, Krell’s How to Dress Well project manages a ghostly consistency of sounds on this album, a combination of work from the several EPs he has released over the last year. Early on, “Ready For The World” is hypnotic and dreamlike, washing over with its steady, repetitive bassline and lifted, unintelligible vocals. The melodies are simple but effective on tracks like the groovy “Lover’s Start” and “You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Going”, which carry a distant feel as a result of such heavy distortion and high octave, echoed vocals. Towards the middle, the songs begin to blend a bit from the constant mood that Krell creates, but the haunting ambiance of “Escape Before the Rain” takes it to another level, while the relatively upbeat drum and piano loop of “Endless Rain” follows as a memorable highlight. “Mr. By and By” seems to almost pay homage to Michael Jackson, while the album’s prettiest chorus line follows on “Decisions” above its slow, marching drum beat. Love Remains is incredibly listenable, and figures to inspire new possibilities for lo-fi production.

#25: Interpol/ Interpol

The iconic post-punk sound of Interpol has never sounded drearier than it does on their fourth album. Interestingly, for most fans of the band, that reality seems to be met with either love or hate, and I myself find it decidedly middling, but still a step up from the relatively disappointing Our Love To Admire. On the one hand, you have the disappointing, plodding opener “Success”, which doesn’t capture attention nearly as well as “Pioneer to the Falls” did on the last attempt. The difference is that while things went downhill after that track on the last album, there are highlights and an impressive flow and cohesion to come despite the somewhat rough start. “Memory Serves” may be a bit over dramatic, but to me is a standout track that demonstrates some serious pain behind pounding percussion and lead singer Paul Bank’s regretful wails. For fans of the band’s previous work, “Summer Well” arguably comes closest to the punching rock that made Antics an instant classic and provides a brief moment of relaxation before the sorrow comes full force on the album’s back half, beginning with the bleak “Lights.”  After a somewhat disorienting center that includes an ill-advised and slight attempt to recreate the immortal “Obstacle 1″ (“Barricade”) and an experimental and lifeless misstep (“Always Malaise”), the band really ends up firing down the home stretch. “Safe Without” uses a brilliant guitar hook that carries an upbeat tempo without losing the theme of hopelessness that permeates throughout the record, and while not terribly complex, is still a classic Interpol track. This blends perfectly into the innovative “Try It On”, which uses a looped electric keyboard line beneath synthesized drums and sees Banks at his best and arguably most despaired vocal moment. Closer “The Undoing” really gets the job done and is probably the most lyrically affecting track here, and the one that sticks with me the longest. The slow build and subtle background pleas add substance to simple, haunting lines like “Always said you had/ Great style, great style/ And style that’s worth while.” You have to hand it to Interpol for even making this album. They aren’t happy, and they aren’t under any preconceived notion that they have to pretend to be in order for you to like their songs.

#24: Caribou/ Swim

Dan Snaith, the electronic artist formerly known as Manitoba, takes a step forward with Swim on his second album under the moniker Caribou. The carefree, airy electronica of Andorra has now evolved into a darker, layered, more streamlined sound. The ghostly house beat, discordant chiming and flute injections on opening track “Odessa” is immediately gripping, while there is textured acid jazz influence on the dark techno track “Sun” and the brighter, purely instrumental “Hannibal” (perhaps the perfect trendy dinner party backing track).  There are amazing layers of instrumentation on standout “Found Out”, complete with an eerie electronic organ underbelly that gains maracas and bongo drums as it evolves. Distorted horns and screeching helium synth on “Kaili” and the more upbeat groove of “Leave House” gear more toward the melodic elements more present on the last album, while centerpiece “Bowls” combines the best of both of Swim‘s worlds– airy, dreamy house concocted with dark, foreboding gongs and synth. Closing track “Jamelia” has an almost underwater sound to it, a fitting end to the otherwise strangely titled Swim.

#23: Four Tet/ There Is Love In You

Four Tet expands upon his style on his greatest album to date, a refined piece of work that takes its time all the way through and delivers fully upon its potential. The title track is a hypnotic blend of xylophone and glockenspiel elements laced with a beautiful vocal element, and leads into the dark, repetitive and synth-heavy “Love Cry”, which carries its pulsating bass thump with precision through its  ambitious nine-minute length. In fact, hypnotic might be the right way to describe this entire album, as the almost complete lack of vocals on There Is Love In You make moments that seem to lull challenging on initial listens, but let the subtle, relaxing simplicity of songs like “Circling” and “Reversing” sink in deep and develop, and you will not be sorry. There are certainly moments where we snap out of the hypnosis, most notably on the energetic and bouncy “Sing,” but even that one abounds with its own sense of longing and regret (amazing how songs can do that without singing a word). Overall, the beauty of this record manifests as a result of its restraint and its refusal to overdo its own sound. The lifted melody and slow, rolling percussion on “This Unfolds” is happy to sink into the background, while the eerily repetitive bell gong on “Plastic People” evolves into one of the most effective pieces here. The bittersweet sounds of closer “She Just Likes To Fight” let us down gently, coming full circle from the title track.

#22: Delorean/ Subiza

For every summer, there is an album, and for 2010, the brightest, most upbeat of them all was Delorean’s Subiza. This Basque dance pop act outdid themselves after last year’s promising Ayrton Senna EP. Sun-baked echoes drench opening track “Stay Close”, which drips with the energy of a thousand never-ending beach parties. Subiza certainly doesn’t lack for energy as it continues, and is almost always the beneficiary of intelligently placed effects that create a distorted, airy feel. It’s hard not to stomp your foot through the nonchalant chorus of “Real Love” or the sentimentality of highlight track “Grow.” There is impressive build to the more serious, life-affirming “Simple Graces,” although I am personally partial to the exotic percussion beats of “Infinite Graces”, and I can almost visualize a roaring fire at dusk on the ocean complete with bellydancers, a whole roasted pig, and lots of rum. Closer “It’s All Ours” takes that eternal beach party to another level, with elements of Middle-Eastern and Morrocan influences that add complexity to the general fiesta tone of the album. On first listen, the congruence of the songs here can almost lead to a difficulty in separating one from the other, although I wonder if that mentality is somewhat missing the point. This is an album about living life to the fullest, enjoying its little moments and taking nothing too seriously while dancing to all of the above. Who can argue with that?

#21: The Walkmen/ Lisbon

You can say a lot of things about The Walkmen, but you can’t say that they don’t emote. Even with Lisbon, the second half of which really slows things down a great deal relative to their previous work, the band has their moments of sheer intensity. Take for example “Angela Surf City”, which takes its place along the band’s greatest material with its washed out beach guitar riff that slowly builds into an explosive chorus. Leadman Hamilton Leithauser demonstrates similar passion on the thrilling “Victory”, which isn’t as triumphant lyrically as it is instrumentally, and this leads into another huge highlight in the rollicking “Woe Is Me”, which has a surprisingly foot-stomping appeal for a song with such a downer for a name. The bluesy undertones of their signature sound show well on opener “Juveniles”, and the darker “Blue As Your Blood” is a perfect demonstration of that heartache that The Walkmen can so easily express through song. The plethora of softer tracks suffer from one-dimensionality on the back end, as songs like  “Stranded” and “All My Great Designs” are pretty enough but don’t really go anywhere. Better are the baroque “Torch Song”, which showcases some fantastic vocal work, and the relaxing and simple title track. This is a older, softer, gentler, Walkmen, but they haven’t lost their touch just yet, and sometimes touch is everything.

#20: Jonsi/ Go

When I read that Sigur Ros lead singer Jonsi was going to release a solo album recorded in English, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, any excuse to hear his voice on record in any form is worth the price of admission, but on the other, didn’t some of the magic of Sigur Ros lie within the ambiguity of the lyrics? When one of my very good friends, who is a musician himself and I may add, has an affinity for very sad sounding music (his favorite Sigur Ros album is () ) demanded that I buy this album immediately, declaring it “a gaggle of elves frolicking in the summer mist”, I knew this wasn’t to be missed (sorry). Amazingly, there is an almost giddy optimism that combines with the already obvious beauty in the music. The opener, and title track, adds wisdom and encouragement through its chorus of “We should always know/ We can do/ Anything…Go do!” After that, we get the rare treat of hearing Jonsi rap and beatbox above a heavenly, reassuring melody on “Animal Arithmetic” before “Boy Lilikoi” takes the complexity up a notch with its shifting time signatures, violin, and spritely tone. It isn’t all utopic though as the lovely piano and stripped down vocal turns into cataclysmic percussion on “Tornado”, while the sublime, atmospheric standout “Kolnidur” might as well be in Icelandic, or whatever, because I dont’ hear any English and I don’t mind one bit. There is quite a bit of irony in the overall sound of this album, as a brilliant songwriter has shown himself in a completely different light (no pun intended), and in English to boot. Some of the dark magic of Sigur Ros is gone to be sure, but that statement misses the point, and anyone who can deny putting this album on during a sunny morning is either lying or doesn’t own it. And let’s be serious, didn’t we all make up our own English lyrics to those Sigur Ros songs anyway? I know I did.

#19: Robyn/ Body Talk

If there is a pop act on the planet that exudes more confidence, spunk and downright fun than Robyn, I’m not sure who it is. This collection of catchy pop tunes is no exception as it hits on all cylinders, combining the highlights from her shorter Body Talk EPs released earlier this year and adding some additional new material as well. The anthemic dance pop gem “Dancing On My Own” opens as the album’s shining star, and the amount of diversity Robyn packs into this album is impressive. Of the other tracks taken from Body Talk 1, “Dancehall Queen” is addictive with its punchy chorus and Jamaican flair, while the Royksopp-produced “None of Dem” turns a complete 180, with darker, ominous sounds.  Still, Robyn hasn’t forgotten what drives her music, and shows great examples of pure poppy perfection on tracks like “Fembot”, although it certainly is a shame that the impossibly bright “Cry When You Get Older” was left off the final product, but the spunky opener from Body Talk Pt. 1, “Don’t Fuckin Tell Me What to Do” finds a place early on. Robyn even builds upon the soft, acoustic sound of “Hang With Me” and adds a dance beat, taking that song to another level. The catchy “Indestructible” gets a similar treatment, while the Snoop Dogg assisted “U Should Know Better” sees Robyn at her most cocky. Of the new material, “Call Your Girlfriend” is an instant classic, as Robyn gently explains to her new man how to let his girlfriend down easy, and does it with some of the prettiest pop we heard all year over a higher octave chorus as Robyn suggests “And it won’t make sense right now/ But you’re still her friend/ And then you let her down easy.” “Time Machine” is pure pop grandeur, a scaled harmony with massive dance beats. Brilliant in its simplicity and immediacy (you’ll have the tunes and lyrics of most of these songs memorized after two listens), music of this style can only be so good, but this is truly as good as it gets.

#18: Titus Andronicus/ The Monitor

The follow-up to 2008’s energetic, angst-ridden The Airing of Grievances is a stunningly ambitious effort, as Titus Andronicus has composed a virtual concept album full of impressively layered, textured and ultimately challenging punk-rock music surrounded by excerpts from 1860s Civil War history, presumably used as a metaphor for the rotting economy. The guitar riffs hit even harder this time around, especially on opener “A More Perfect Union”, and later on standout “Richard II”, which boasts perhaps the best lyric of the band’s entire catalog as leadman Patrick Stickles snarls, “I will not deny my humanity/ I will be rolling in it like a pig in feces/ Cause there’s no other integrity/ In awaiting the demise of our species.” The album is once again full of anthemic sing-along phrases that come across with an impressive lack of animosity considering their overall cynicism. There’s the always entertaining chant of “The enemy is everywhere!” above a rollicking combination of instruments on “Titus Andronicus Forever”, while the slowly building “No Future Part Three” chants the repeated revelation, “You will always be a loser!” before offering a universal consolation,”And that’s okay!” Many of the songs begin very slowly and develop over several minutes with patience, a vast change from the short, rocky numbers of the band’s debut. Centerpiece “A Pot In Which To Piss” opens up with a distant, foreboding, almost a capella vocal before evolving into a gripping baseline, and eventually shifting into a dominant blues piano riff that changes tempo within itself, adding horns through its dramatic coda. Perhaps even better is “Four Score And Seven”, arguably the most triumphant and complex song the band as ever written, starting softly with harmonica and picking up gorgeous horn notes before exploding into an emotionally charged catharsis ending with another fantastically simple and heavily repeated lyric, “It’s still us against them!” before conceding, in a hopeful, call-to arms manner, “And they’re winning…” “Theme From Cheers” has a country twang and speaks to familiar themes of binge drinking and lost youth, while closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads” approaches epic status through its fourteen minutes of pure angst, disdain and above all, honesty, complete with bagpipes through its gentler midsection and through its highly charged conclusion. You may not agree with all of the things that Titus Andronicus thinks are wrong with the country, and I surely don’t either, but you’d be hard pressed to disagree that they have a lot of fun getting their point across.

#17: Broken Social Scene/ Forgiveness Rock Record

Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene takes a step forward on its most recent release, the inward-looking, reflective, and aptly named Forgiveness Rock Record. As with all of their previous albums, this one runs a bit long, a consequence of the band’s passion as it combines with their considerable musical and compositional talents. The strengths of Broken Social Scene’s music have always laid within its intricacies, as rarely does their music jump out and grab you. These subtleties are taken to a new and even more pleasant level this time around, as opener “World Sick” is content to work slowly behind its gentle rhythm before building into layers of impressive sound, evolving into the quicker tempo of the paranoid “Chase Scene”, which combines a foreboding electronic synthesizer above sprawling horns and piano. The forgiveness begins to seep through on “Texico Bitches”, an otherwise seething indictment of the oil industry that seems to  carry a tone of understanding rather than resentment through its sweet melody as lead singer Kevin Drew admits, “I wanna be fair.” The female presence of Broken Social Scene makes its usual huge impact here, as newcomer Lisa Lobsinger delivers a perfectly reserved vocal on the beautiful, airy “All For All”, and Emily Haines elevates the slowly building, Stevie Nicks evoking “Sentimental X’s” in much the same way she did on the classic “Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl.” The band finds its new anthem in the massive power of instrumental track “Meet Me in the Basement”, while their ambition is demonstrated on tracks like the horn-driven “Art House Director,” and we see an abnormal amount of optimism on the celebratory, consolatory “Water In Hell.” Softer songs at the end of the album succeed as well for the most part, as “Sweetest Kill” is essentially perfect in its regretfully dreary pop melody, while “Romance to the Grave” takes it up a notch with its impressively textured rhythm sections and atmospheric background vocals. One-dimensional closer “Me and My Hand” is a tedious misstep, but considering that Broken Social Scene has created an entire album that lacks their normal pretentiousness, shows growth and offers forgiveness, I suppose I can forgive them as well for their tendency to include a few songs too many. They can’t help it.

#16: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti/ Before Today

Before Today is my first exposure to the underground, lo-fi home recording styles of Ariel Pink, an innovative artist whose influence is only now becoming fully understood, as more and more young musicians are experimenting with “bedroom-recording” styles that lack a professional touch, often to great results (Atlas Sound, How to Dress Well and Bear Like Mouse come immediately to mind). After spending years recording hundreds of pieces of material onto audio cassettes in a somewhat reclusive manner by some accounts, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti project gets the treatment of a higher production quality on independent label 4AD. Surely the same ingredients are still at work here; while these songs may be more polished and demonstrate a certain flow, they are still dripping with lo-fi psychedelic sounds reminiscent of 60s garage rock, 80s new wave synth and goth as well. At its core, Before Today is a vintage pop album, and its best moments arise when surprising transitions from soft bass lines and low, chanting vocals into gorgeous, atmospheric chorus lines create stunning beauty, especially on songs like “Round And Round” and “Menopause Man.” The distant horn line that opens “Hot Body Rub” sets a perfect tone for the album’s scope of influences, and by the time the band bursts into the somewhat bubbly, melodic cover of “Bright Lit Blue Skies”, it is hard to be certain what musical era we are experiencing. Atari keyboards on the complex “L’estat” build into an attention-grabbing space rock coda before fading perfectly into standout track “Fright Night”, which moves along with precision and an eerie, yet somewhat reassuring organ riff. Still, diversity abounds, as the riff-driven “Little Wig” stands out here for its driving force and catchy hook, while closer “Revolution’s A Lie” evokes memories of Joy Division’s “Isloation”, with its dark, repetitive bassline, ominous baritone and overall sense of cool. With this album, it could be that all of Ariel Pink’s unique ideas over his arguably strange career may have finally found a home, as they are not only alive and well, but are thriving.

#15: Future Islands/ In Evening Air

This is a very sharp debut from these former North Carolina art students, who don’t miss a step blasting through nine high-octane tracks that make up for what they lack in complexity by what they demonstrate through sheer force. Lead singer Samuel Herring possesses all the eccentricities of a charismatic rocker, as we can literally feel him gritting his teeth and snarling his cynicism at ex-lovers on tracks like the essential “Long Flight” with lines like “You can’t look me in my eyes anymore/ Without the rivers to tend/ Because you remember our love was true/ But you just needed a hand.” Herring’s vocal style benefits most from his moments of high intensity and inflection, such as on the stirring ending of the aforementioned track, as well as the softer, more powerful conclusion of the sublime “An Apology.” The sound of the music itself seems to be an odd-blend of 00s post-punk and 80s new-wave, as cartoonish Atari keyboards combine with dark, feedback laden electric guitars on highlight “The Tin Man”, where we hear Herring literally grumbling his verses to strong effect. The second half of the album makes a shift stylistically, with drawn out jams like “Swept Inside” and “Vireo’s Eye” demonstrating build but leaning towards one-dimensionality. The real star of the show on the record’s back side is “Inch of Dust”, which takes a bit of a break from the vocal antics and delivers a serious, heavy and restrained track that builds into one of the most subtly emotional moments here as Herring whispers, before eventually pleading, “Call on me/ I’ll be there always.” Sometimes music is better when it is more stripped down, raw and real, and In Evening Air is a great example of that idea.

#14: Hot Chip/ One Life Stand

Hot Chip has had a fairly successful career doing what they do best, which is making dance floor-ready pop singles. Songs like “Boy From School”, “Over and Over” and “Ready For The Floor” put this band on the map, and rightfully so, but even 2006’s commendable The Warning struggled to find cohesion as a complete album at times. Finally, on One Life Stand, Hot Chip have created a focused, consistent and emotionally charged record that is their best to date by leaps and bounds, as these songs benefit from a certain flow of mood that we have never seen from them before. The normally upbeat bounce and accessibility of their music takes a sharp turn here, at times showing moments of vulnerability and doubt, but also confessions of love on multiple levels, and long time fans may be perplexed as they search for that elusive dance single. The first four songs are impenetrable. Opener “Thieves In The Night” is content to build behind a steady beat before it evolves into an urgent, gripping synth beat that carries a certain tone of seriousness, while “Hand Me Down Your Love” uses a minor piano chord progression that builds into a violin line above as we hear simple but powerful lyrics like “I’ve known for a long time/ That you are my love light.”  The remarkable complexity of “I Feel Better” is a clear highlight here, as dark, foreboding strings come in above a steady beat and synthesized vocal and slowly build into pure dance pop perfection, eventually shifting completely into an unexpected reggae breakdown that somehow seems to fit perfectly. The title track holds its own with an equally impressive build, while the dark synth of “We Have Love” glides above the sharpest percussion on the album; perhaps this is the song the dancing crowd will appreciate the most.  The album seems to hit a bit of a lull in its midsection, as the softer sounding “Brothers” and “Slush”seem to break the momentum a bit, but they don’t deviate from the mood, and serve to illustrate the type of ideas the band is capable of. One Life Stand reaches its emotional pinnacle over the course of closer “Take It In”, as an eerie vocal verse takes a seismic shift into the gorgeous chorus of “Oh, my heart has flown to you just like a dove/ It can fly, It can fly/ Oh, please take my heart and keep it close to you,” the perfect sendoff for an album that has finally put together the pieces.

#13: Deerhunter/ Halcyon Digest

For me, Deerhunter was at their most entertaining when they were less musically inclined. The rawness, distortion and subtle terror of Cryptograms remains my favorite Deerhunter work, but when evaluating this band objectively, it must be recognized that they are at their core music fans first (especially lead singer Bradford Cox) before they are musicians. This has never been more evident than on Halcyon Digest, a record full of nostalgic homages to the band’s influences, which apparently include a lot more psyschedlic 60s rock than I was aware of. Listen to this record back to back with Cryptograms and you will be shocked at the transformation, and that this is even the same band, and that realization should be met with respect for the growth they have made, despite the fact that the first half of this record renders Deerhunter virtually unrecognizable. Opener “Earthquake” is almost dreamlike with its slow, airy finger picking and soaring background guitars, which would be fitting enough if not for the fact that what follows, “Don’t Cry”, “Revival” and “Memory Boy” take a drastic and somewhat shocking stylistic turn, sounding catchy as can be with upbeat 1960s garage rock, psychedelic and chamber pop vibes respectively. In between is the barren, stripped down acoustic guitar of “Sailing”, which takes its gorgeous melody as far as it needs to and refuses to over complicate. If you aren’t too confused by time time you get to centerpiece “Desire Lines”, you’ll finally get a taste of a familiar sounding Deerhunter song, which evolves dramatically with a ringing, repeated guitar riff and impressive percussion patterns behind guitartist Lockett Pundt’s tormented vocals and emotionally charged chorus before churning out a three minute jam session. This is the beginning of the album’s best stretch, as “Basement Scene” follows with its creepy, addictively repetitive melody before giving way to the absolutely sublime “Helicopter”, which uses an electronic harp behind its airy vocals, among the most impressive Cox has ever put to record. Penultimate track “Coronado” features confident, optimistic vocals along with a saxaphone to create as triumphant a song as Deerhunter has ever written and may have served better as the closer, as the overlong “He Would Have Laughed” draws from Animal Collective but perhaps tries to do too much, and ends rather abruptly, but is perhaps a metaphor for life, as the song is dedicated to the late Jay Reatard. In the end, the more I try to knock the things I don’t like about this album, the more I end up respecting it.

#12: Big Boi/ Sir Lucious Left Foot

There was a time when fans of Outkast, arguably the greatest hip-hop act of the last decade and a half, would point to Andre Benjamin as the provocative anchor of that twosome. Even after he and Big Boi split to create the often brilliant but ultimately inconsistent double disc Speakerboxx/ The Love Below in 2003, the focus was on Andre’s breakout single “Hey Ya.” After Big Boi’s true debut rap album, perhaps we should reconsider that assessment, as Sir Lucious Left Foot is a work full of forward-looking ideas, complete with a laissez-faire production attitude that features contributions from a great many influential figures. There is a certain urgency to the flow of the sound here, as songs like “Daddy Fat Sax” and “Turns Me On” glide above strings and catchy synthesizers; here is an album that shows how truly musical and melodic rap can be. Innovation can be appreciated on highlights like “Follow Us”, which carries its dead serious synth riff into a rocker chorus that would have clearly have fallen flat as a rock song, but instead sticks out here in a big way. The accessible, dance floor-ready “Shutterbugg” sends a lightning bolt of robot voices straight to the midsection that should permeate the motion of many a clubgoer, while “Tangerine” brings back the sex-driven beats and lyricism that made Southernplayalisticcadillakmusic an instant classic. Dark, ominous beats, horns and choir vocals carry the autobiographical “General Patton”, while closer “Back Up Plan” doesn’t bore despite its relative simplicity, and is actually a welcome conclusion after such ride. And then there are the additions of artists like Janelle Monae, who provides a gorgeous vocal to standout “Be Still”, and the immortal George Clinton on the (of course) weed-friendly and immediately memorable “Fo Yo Sorrows.” Again, I have to mention how melodic this all is for a rap album, especially compared to prior Outkast efforts, which seemed more dependent on their beats, and rightfully so. Songs like “Shine Blockas” really communicate such a high degree of musicality, and Big Boi has shown us on this album how mainstream synth pop, dance beats, confident lyricism and delivery can combine, perhaps giving us a look into the future of this genre.

#11: Menomena/ Mines

From the opening notes of “Queen Black Acid”, it becomes evident that on their third full length album, Menomena has softened up their sound a great deal. Its simple build doesn’t scream complexity, but is certainly a full, lush track that sets a great tone for Mines, easily the prettiest, albeit it not the best, album from this band. It isn’t one dimensional in that aspect, as Menomena still shows their tendency to want to rock out on songs like “TAOS” and “BOTE”, both of which seem to indicate at least a bit of TV on the Radio influence, while the groovy “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy” uses a subtle bassline, organ and horn notes that show restraint and depth. Early in the album, “Killemall” is vintage Menomena and a big highlight, as organ notes explode into a rolling electronic drumline and the nonchalantly sung chorus, “Fire and flames they are possessed/ Lay the spirits down to rest/ The spirits are ventriloquists/ They say the things that must be said.” This begins the album’s strongest stretch, as acoustic number “Dirty Cartoons” is a textbook example of how a song should build both instrumentally and vocally to optimize its emotional impact. “Tithe” is an absolute masterpiece and among the best songs in the band’s entire catalog, evolving from its piano underbelly and sharp yet simple electric guitar riff into a perfectly integrated bassline and lifted, bittersweet chorus of “And nothing sounds appealing.” Towards the end, we see some diversity with the darker piano keys and horns on the unsettling “Five Little Rooms” as well as innovation on the distortion-laced electric keyboard loops and synthesized percussion of “Sleeping Beauty,” which eventually bursts into a wild, chaotic crescendo that maintains impressive balance. To finish, we get a song called “INTIL”, which aside from possibly Friend and Foe‘s “Rotten Hell”, has to be regarded as the most beautiful song Menomena has ever written, as it uses a similar structure of understated piano that picks up additional percussion elements and a defeated tone through its remarkably unwavering melody. Fans of the band’s previously more raw sound may feel that they have taken a step towards the mainstream, but will be hard pressed to deny the overall quality of these songs from an artist that at this point seems virtually incapable of creating a weak track.

#10: Arcade Fire/ The Suburbs

The highly anticipated third album from the darlings of Indie rock, the Arcade Fire, lacks the urgency of their epic debut Funeral, but also takes a step away from the pretentiousness that ran rampant throughout their sophomore album Neon Bible. The result is the heavily thematic The Suburbs, an album that probably could have been a few tracks shorter and orchestrated itself better from a flow standpoint, but one that ultimately delivers a large number of amazing tracks while trading the self-seriousness of their last effort for a genuine communication of emotion. Some of the finest moments this time around come right off the bat, as the opening title track is an immediate grabber with its bluesy piano melody, and transitions perfectly into the darker electric guitar riff of the rollicking “Ready To Start.” The youthful neighborhood stories are reminiscent of the tormented Funeral, although they take more of a reflective tone here, evidenced by lead singer Win Butler’s almost obsessive use of the lyric “the kids” throughout these songs- some have suggested a drinking game based on those many  instances. Such repetition benefits itself on tracks like the foreboding “Rococo”, which begins with a simple progression of power chords before bursting into a chaotic coda. Butler’s wife Regine Chassagne always adds an additional element of energy to the band’s albums, and her vocals on the atmospheric freak-folk track “Empty Room” provides a welcome diversity just before the album’s halfway mark. There is musical innovation here as well for a band that seemed to have already mastered its own sound. The electro-beat on “Half Light II (N0 Celebration)” sends jabs straight to the gut through its effortless progression, while the spectacular penultimate track “Sprawl II” features Chassagne at her very finest, as her whispering vocals power one of the year’s very best tracks behind its hopeful melody and disco beat. Still, songs like centerpiece “Suburban War” are classic Arcade Fire, with a simple guitar melody that evolves into a stunning crescendo, complete with shifting time signatures and choral background vocals as Butler laments, “All my old friends/ They don’t know me now.” There is a bit of a lull between that track and the more familiar sounding build of “We Used To Wait”, but none of these songs fall completely flat. Moreover, it is reassuring to see such a talented band abandon the quest for perfection and instead open up honestly doing what they love to do. If that is what it takes in order to get Arcade Fire to keep making great songs, I will happily oblige.

#9: Gorillaz/ Plastic Beach

When Blur broke up near the beginning of the last decade at the height of their innovation, following the nearly flawless 13 and exciting Think Tank, I was heartbroken. The musical differences that arose between them would eventually lead frontman Damon Albarn to start a new project in a drastic stylistic shift with an almost cartoonish hip hop sound as Gorillaz. The best songs, like essential tracks “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” were instant party classics and still stand up well today, but those albums suffered severely from consistency issues. With Plastic Beach, Albarn has created an album that plays like what new Blur material may well have sounded like at this point in time. Gorillaz are no longer a cartoon; the silliness has been left behind for a more lush, broad sound that isn’t without its fair share of party music to boot. In fact, this would be my choice for the best background party album of the year, which is saying a lot considering the sporadic song placement and massive outside contributions. Thanks to the quality of the music and configuration of some seriously impressive beats, cameo performances by Mos Def on “Sweepstakes” and Snoop Dogg on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” maintain a seriousness that is immediately enticing. Slower numbers like “Some Kind of Nature”, which benefits from a classic monotone vocal from the immortal Lou Reed, add to the immense diversity of sound here. The highlights here are plentiful, but as expected, Albarn’s vocal tracks fare best of all, spanning a wide range of tempos. There’s the gorgeous 80s-inspired synth, steady beat and heavenly vocals on standout track “On Melancholy Hill”, while the slowly building “Rhinestone Eyes” seems to have a familiar tone to it before exploding into a space-age dance track with a sound all its own. The beats here are almost relentless but the songs pick up an atmospheric element that adds another dimension to their already surprising complexity, as Mos Def once again lends a hand on the layered, synth-driven and uptempo track “Stylo” while Albarn enters new territory on the gorgeous “Empire Ants,” beginning as softly as can be and evolving seamlessly into a lifted, electronic underbelly through its other-wordly conclusion. There is really too much to dive into here than even seems imaginable on first listen, and eventually subtle gems like “Broken” and “To Binge” begin to show their beauty as well. This truly is an impressive balance of upbeat dance music and a modernized version of the pop that Blur perfected over the course of the 1990s, and is one of the year’s biggest surprises.

#8: Sleigh Bells/ Treats

It has been awhile since we have seen a debut album omit such relentless energy, but on Treats, New York duo Sleigh Bells combines some sort of a brilliant mix of catchy pop melodies, heavy metal intensity and party rap beats, and what results is one of the year’s most exciting albums. There is never a dull moment as the band rips through eleven raucous tracks in just over a half hour. Jabbing machine gun percussion on “Tell ‘Em” penetrate the first of many memorable guitar riffs as lead singer Alexis Krauss delivers a repetitive, engaging vocal with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader. Without missing a step, the band moves into more beat driven material like the punchy “Riot Rhythm” which gives way one of the clear highlights here, “Infinity Guitars.” On this track, Krauss combines a sweet background vocal while simultaneously screaming in spoken voice over a rolling riff, and the moment of screeching distortion where the song shifts into a frenzy of utter chaos is as shocking as it is effective. Heavier still is the unintelligible, punky “Straight A’s”, while the layered masterpiece that is “Crown on the Ground” blends the best of both worlds, as Krauss provides relatively relaxed vocals as sprawling distortion swirls around her, eventually building into a massively disoriented crescendo that manages to work perfectly.  And even after all of that, the mesmerizing bubble gum dream pop of “Rill Rill” may be the album’s strongest track and most addictive, sampling Funkadelic and looping a gorgeous acoustic guitar melody beneath some of Krauss’s best vocal work. Try hearing this once and not humming it for the rest of the day. Overall, it is the balance between her ability to show restraint during some moments and absolute recklessness at other points that creates such a raw, refreshing and inherently energetic sound. It seems to end so suddenly, but after such a whirlwind, perhaps it is better that we catch our breath and anxiously await future material, which figures to be promising if Treats is any indication of this band’s potential.

#7: Flying Lotus/ Cosmogramma

Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus takes a big step forward from his thoroughly enjoyable debut full length Los Angeles on sophomore effort Cosmogramma, a fascinating and challenging exploration of the possibilities of beat manipulation and electronic music. The album plays somewhat like a symphony consisting of three movements. The opening tracks “Clock Catcher” “Pickled”, and “Nose Art” hit hard in succession and seem almost playful in nature with their videogame synth noises, a quick warm up to get us ready for some exciting new musical ideas. As we move on to more complex pieces like the amazing shift from the dim, spacey undertones and mind-boggling beat on “Zodiac Shit” to its bass-driven lounge thumps, the album drives into its trip-hop stage. The transition and flow from the exhausting “Computer Face/ Pure Being” to the Thom Yorke-assisted highlight “The World Laughs With You” is an essay in perfection, and that track carries its own weight well enough for Yorke’s presence on it to be merely an afterthought. This airier middle stage of the album hits its apex with the gorgeously restrained “Mmm Hmm” before evolving into a more jazz-influenced final movement. Remember that Fly Lo’s aunt is the famous jazz musician Alice Coltrane, and her influence is prevalent here. The more upbeat “Do the Astral Plane” and “Dance of the Psuedo Nymph” serve as a bit of a break from the harder-to-grasp material earlier in the album, and should become immediate playlist choices for dinner parties and boutiques far and wide. Laura Darlington returns after helping on powerful Los Angeles closing track “Auntie’s Lock/ Infintium” to provide a haunting vocal on the downtempo “Ping Pong” (featuring a looped game of ping pong as the beat and namesake) while closer “Galaxy In Janaki” pays tribute to Ellison’s deceased mother and ties all of the digital jazz and electronica of Cosmogramma together. Truth be told, Ellison has elevated himself to status as a musical visionary with this effort, and no other album this year gave us a similar glimpse into the future.

#6: Crystal Castles/ Crystal Castles (II)

On their second self-titled album, electro-punk duo Crystal Castles expand their unique sound with deeper, broader sounding music while still remaining true to their core of often terrifying rave rock. This balance is evident early on after the noisy distortion and intense vocals by Alice Glass on opener “Fainting Spells” fade into the more atmospheric, shoegaze highlight “Celestica,” and then back into the maniacally propulsive “Doe Deer,” which features Glass screaming the word “deathray” over and over again in a disturbing manner. To me, as enjoyable as their debut album was, it suffered at points from an overdose of this often unbearably noisy intensity and an overall lack of focus, so the gentler, prettier sounds here add a new element of complexity for sure without sacrificing the same element of beat, and the pacing is commendable as well. Songs like the lifted, trip-hoppy standout “Suffocation” and the twirling synth beats on “Empathy” give us a taste of what Glass’s (somewhat manipulated) voice sounds like when she isn’t screaming, and the music underneath is impressively melodic. On the whole, Ethan Kath’s beats have sharpened considerably this time around, most notably on rave tracks like “Baptism”, while “Vietnam” and quasi-closer “Intimate” show development on a new level as they communicate some genuine emotion behind their impressively layered structure. “Violent Dreams” uses a dark electronic organ to create an eerie church vibe, while the energetic bounce of “Pap Smear” and heavily manipulated vocals on the gorgeous, bittersweet “Not In Love” add to the diversity here. A band all its own, Crystal Castles found their niche in 2010, elevating themselves beyond their own supposed genre, and with this album have managed to straddle the line between accessible pop and hardcore electronica.

#5: The National/ High Violet

2007’s Boxer became one of Indie Rock’s most beloved cult albums on the strength of its ability to expand and evolve upon repeated listens, as well as The National’s remarkable reputation as a live act, and the followup to that effort was met with perhaps the greatest anticipation of any album released this year. High Violet comes as close to matching its predecessor as we could have reasonably hoped, and by all accounts is an even darker, more personal account; whether the songs stack up as a little better or a little worse seems to be a meaningless debate. The same rainy-city-street-at-night feel permeates throughout this collection of songs, and the National has again found a way to lyrically express the universal melodrama of everyday life and the added difficulties that growing older present- financial difficulty, (“I still owe money/ To the money/ To the money I owe”), lost love, (“Cover me in rag and bone sympathy/ Cause I don’t wanna get over you”) and overall inability to deal with life’s frustrations (“I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”)- without being melodramatic. Opener “Terrible Love” is mesmerizing in its layered melancholy, while the broad ballad “Sorrow” follows softy, possibly doing a better job of describing its own title with sound than any song I can remember by this band or anyone else. There is a defeated tone to “Anyone’s Ghost”, which picks up the tempo a bit with a foot-stomping percussion pattern, while quivering guitar notes add depth to highlight “Afraid of Everyone.” Lead singer Matt Berninger’s rich baritone leads the way through the album’s shining centerpiece “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, an immediately gripping number that builds upon its sharp drumming and scaled melody with soaring guitar riffs and piano through its stunning coda, an essay in the balance between musical restraint and release.  The somewhat terrifying “Conversation 16″, switches between minor chords on its verses and a somewhat rare moment of optimism during its chorus before Berninger breaks down and offers “I was afraid/ I’d eat your brains/ Because I’m evil.” Heavily orchestrated “England” would have worked better as a closer here than the somewhat overdone “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, with its allusions to rainy London nights and Los Angeles cathedrals, using a patient piano melody backed with subtle horns that evolve into a drum march and builds into the album’s finest crescendo. Even more one-dimensional songs like “Lemonworld” and “Little Faith” that seem a bit slight on the first listen reveal impressive emotional heft when revisited. It is a rare thing indeed for music this dreary to be this listenable, but that’s what The National do, and they are beginning to do it better than anyone else. High Violet is a strong addition to an already commendable catalog.

#4: LCD Soundsystem/ This Is Happening

This Is Happening, allegedly the final album from James Murphy, the one man show that is LCD Soundsystem, waxes nostalgic, delivering his most melodic set of songs to date behind, once again, consistently energetic beats. Opener “Dance Yrself Clean” requires a bit of patience initially, as Murphy’s monotone vocal begins slowly and softly above a hollow, delicate beat that suddenly shifts into buzzing synth and electronic drums which turn the song into a supreme dance jam. The bittersweet sentiment of standouts like “All My Friends” from the essentially perfect previous album Sound of Silver finds itself in solid form here on “All I Want”, the album’s clear highlight with its soaring 80s-inspired guitar riff, steady percussion and heartbreaking tune. The beats are softer and the melodies a bit more mainstream on the instantly accessible, dizzying “I Can Change”, and steady grind of “You Wanted A Hit”, which  meanders effortlessly over its eight minutes. He has always been less of a vocalist and more of a force and a presence, but his commendable attempts at hitting higher notes on “Change” are nothing if not truthful and modest, especially on powerfully strained lines like “Love is a murderer!” Murphy indulges in rambling monologues on longer songs like the bongo-drum driven “Pow Pow” and the massive, somewhat ominous techno track “One Touch.” On the former, he offers somewhat nonsensically and off beat, “We have a black president and you do not/ So shut up/ Because you don’t know shit about where I’m from/ And you didn’t even buy my CD,” which doesn’t even attempt to rhyme, but somehow works perfectly, evoking memories of the spoken-word classic “Losing My Edge”, which one could argue is where it all began for this artist.  Unlike his previous efforts, there are small missteps here that fail to deliver fully on the album’s potential, such as the generally obnoxious and repetitive “Drunk Girls” and the somewhat one-dimensional yet hypnotic “Somebody’s Calling Me.” It could be said that in many circumstances an artist is better to go out on top than he is to fade away into mediocrity. Personally, I think Murphy still has years of musical creativity to build upon, but if he now prefers to explore different areas of his potential outside of the musical spectrum, “Home” is a fitting farewell. Reprising the melody from the opening track for its chorus, the closing track rolls above beats that are at once celebratory and reflective, it brings both the album and a fascinating, out-of-nowhere and ultimately too short-lived career full circle.

#3: Kanye West/ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

When and if hip hop music ever ceases to exist, will Kanye West go down as the greatest rapper of all time? Truthfully, four albums deep into his career, I had great respect for his ability as a producer, but he wouldn’t have even been on my short list for that honor. With the release of his fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy after two years of turmoil, it is clear that he is aiming for nothing less. The beats hit harder through this relentless, emotional effort, and Kanye’s self-destructive personality is a force, conveying a somewhat paradoxical combination of a personal apology and an indictment of American society. In somewhat of a surprise from an artist that has always been more of a producer than a rapper, he has created the strongest hip hop album in over a decade, an intense, serious and at times unsettling work the likes of which we have never seen from him. There are more showstopping moments on Fantasy than on his previous four albums combined. West benefits from a slew of guest appearances, from Nicki Monaj’s mind-bending verse on the disturbing “Monster” to the Jay-Z and RZA’s short but conclusive help on the astonishing centerpiece “So Appalled”, a song that is absolutely dripping with despair and disappointment beneath a subtle, melancholy beat that is reminiscent of the great East Coast rap of the early 90s. Even Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon adds vocals and music on “Lost In The World”, an upbeat number that sticks out here and clearly demonstrates West’s diverse musical interests, while a hilarious cameo from Chris Rock at the end of the heartbreaking “Blame Game” can’t change the tone of the addictive chorus sung by John Legend. Opener “Fantasy” splits an a capella Gospel chorus with a foreboding verse that serves as an ideal tone setter, with West spitting honest lines like “Plan was to drink until the pain over/ But what’s worse/ The pain or the hangover.” In fact, the overall cleverness of his lyrics throughout this album are a clear improvement from previous efforts. Apocalyptic background vocals engulf hand-clap percussion on “Power” as West adds, “They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation/ Well that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation” before the track takes a surprising suicidal turn. Violin, horns and a sweet piano melody combine on the triumphant masterpiece “All of the Lights,” which eventually picks up a speedy drum machine beat that is nothing short of awesome.  And then of course there’s “Runaway”, which begins with a single piano key and builds into a nine minute epic with a memorable chorus that gives a toast to douchebags, scumbags and assholes, and before we are left wondering if perhaps Kanye has learned to view himself from our eyes as such, the track shifts into an extended finale (complete with an electronic bagpipe?) that sounds like an apology. But I digress, as a track by track analysis doesn’t do Fantasy justice. For the first time in his career, West has created an album that is more about the sum of its parts than it is about any one song, and it is his highest artistic achievement to date.

#2: Gonjasufi/ A Sufi And A Killer

Those who remember “Testament”, the haunting closing track to Flying Lotus’s 2008 album Los Angeles, may remember the unique, unforgettable vocal provided by an unknown artist that called himself Gonjasufi. Two years later, that artist’s debut full length is a sprawling, expansive combination of a vast array of genres, spanning bass-driven trip hop (“Change”, “Advice”), riff-heavy rock (“Suzie Q”), exotic Eastern influences (“Klowds”, “Kowboyz and Indians”), lounge bar-ready acid jazz (“Candylane”) and psychedelic blues (“Ageing”) without ever sacrificing its sense of cohesion. A Sufi and A Killer almost feels as though it was recorded in the desert and buried underground in a time capsule for an unspecified number of years; the decidedly grimy sounds and ghostly textures present here seem to defy any discernable era of music, and the production quality alone is a marvel. The windy tribal sounds of understated opener “Rebirth” blend darkly into an eerie acoustic guitar loop on “Cobwebs”, and then the even bleaker moodiness of the FlyLo produced “Ancestors” follows as a clear highlight. Gonjasufi’s unmistakable voice almost acts as additional instrumentation here, as it is almost always distorted and not completely to the surface level of the music, creating consistent tension and release through the generally downtempo sounds here. The gentle repetition of “Sleep” lends itself well as a useful lullably, while the stunningly heart-wrenching “She Gone” builds from a thumping bassline into a playful piano melody before Gonjasufi hits us with a blood-curdling scream that is surely one of the album’s best moments. Choppy synth bolts on “Holidayz” provide perhaps the album’s most (only?) accessible moment, while the threatening, stormy blues of “Ded Nd” and defeated casio riff on “I’ve Given” thrive on increased intensity and passion both musically and vocally. At 20 tracks, this is a challenging record, but surely one of the year’s most captivating, while also likely to be one of the most overlooked.

#1: Beach House/ Teen Dream

After lo-fi dream pop outfit Beach House’s serviceable self-titled debut album and even more commendable sophomore effort Devotion, it was practically inconceivable that the quality of their sound was capable of making the jump that it does here on Teen Dream, my choice for the best album of 2010. All of the pieces were there, but while providing some extremely solid tracks like “Master of None” and “Gila”, their previous albums were lacking in a consistency of mood. This time around, Beach House builds on the potential those albums showed, creating lush, atmospheric soundscapes combined with lifted vocals that result in an unwavering collection of tunes that are at once hopeful and somber, and without a single weak moment. In fact, I’d say there are at least five songs here that are better than anything they have ever written, as this music benefits immensely from its nearly perfect melodic arrangements and layers of polished, textured sound. On the enticing opener “Zebra”, airy background vocals combine with the commanding voice of Victoria Legrand along with a patient guitar melody that builds into layers of orchestration demonstrating a certain fullness that the band achieves on this album as it continues. Massive ballads like “Silver Soul”, with its organ notes, sliding electric guitar and nonchalant “ah ah” vocals, set the gorgeous tone early on, while “Better Times” brings back some of the familiar gloom of their earlier work. The sweeping highlight “Norway” is as dreamy as anything the band has ever done, building from an intentionally discordant and disorienting guitar slide over its verses into a soaring chorus of more “ah ha” whispers, dense, ringing guitar and of course, Legrand reaching for the sky vocally. A slow drum machine beat leads “Walk In The Park” through its utterly spectacular chorus hook as Legrand sings over more organ reverb “In a matter of time/ It would slip through my mind/ In and out of my life.” The beauty of Legrand’s vocal range is showcased on more straightforward tracks like “Used To Be” and “Real Love”, as her often raspy tenor floats into moments of higher octave brilliance. The standout track here is the innovative “10 Mile Stereo”, which glides above its dark, foreboding guitar line before picking up a synthesized drum beat and exploding into layers of distorted shoegazer violins, while reassuring closer “Take Care” builds slowly into its lovely, tearjerking chorus before fading softly into the distance. Teen Dream had the benefit of a January release, but no other album stuck with me the way this one did in 2010- it is just too impossibly pretty, relaxing, and still exudes so much emotional power.


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