10 Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid (Suites II & III)
When you learn that Janelle Monae considered a career on Broadway before becoming a musician, it all makes more sense. Monae is one of the freshest and most talented artists out there right now and she definitely has a flair for the theatric. Her style combines Hip-Hop, R&B, soul and rock and she’s a fantastic dancer to boot. I already put one of her videos in my favorites of the year. She broke onto the scene with an EP in 2007 and this LP is a direct continuation of that concept. The album revolves around a storyline reminiscent of the classic sci-fi film Metropolis but spins it into a social and cultural commentary without being preachy or angry. Forget Kanye West, we’ll all be talking about Janelle Monae in a couple of years.
Key Tracks: Tightrope, Faster
9 Ra Ra Riot – The Orchard
Ra Ra Riot, like Vampire Weekend, had the tall task of following up a great debut this year. Their tactic was to keep their energetic pop style but to pair it with more down-tempo numbers featuring their string players. The result is excellent. You’ve got pounding sing-along numbers like “Boy” and soft string tunes like the title track. The whole album feels like a band maturing and chipping away at itself to unearth a sculpture that is beautiful. This album gets better with every listen.
Key Tracks: Boy, You and I Know
8 Derek Webb – Feedback
Derek Webb is known for his critical takes on the flaws in modern Church life and leadership. Since leaving Caedmon’s Call, he has released a number of solo albums that have been heady and harsh while growing his musical style with each one. Early this year, he began teasing that he’s doing a “worship album”, which few believed. Yet, with the release of Feedback, he did just that and turned the concept on its head. The album is a set of instrumental tracks based on The Lord’s Prayer that is meant to help facilitate prayer and meditation and it does a great job of that. I find it much more worshipful that any Chris Tomlin song I’ve heard. He also released it in a package with paintings and photos to engage more senses in the worship. Chris Tomlin should be taking notes.
Key Tracks: the album as a whole
7 Stars – The Five Ghosts
I don’t think the Canadian band Stars has ever released a bad album. I like every LP they’ve produced and this one is no different. Perfectly fusing pop, rock and a little electronica – the band plays songs that speak about love and heartbreak as they joyously play their instruments. The dueling vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan are the touchstone for the whole thing and their conversational lyrics are some of the best and most personal you’ll hear. How about the lyric “Once said, words make a world of their own / I misread, I can’t get you back on the phone”?
Key Tracks: Dead Hearts, Changes
6 The National – High Violet
The National have been universally praised for a few years now and the hype surrounding their newest release was seismic. Taking the hype on their shoulders, the band dropped an album that should cement them as one of the more talented bands currently working. The pounding drum lines are the foundations for dense guitar arrangements while Matt Berninger croons cryptic lyrics in his strong baritone. Many tracks feature large casts of guest musicians playing strings and horns giving the albums even more textures. It takes multiple listens to uncover all the nuances of the music let alone the lyrics. A great album.
Key Tracks: Bloodbuzz Ohio, Terrible Love
5 Hammock – Chasing After Echoes…Living With the Ghosts
Hammock just keeps thinking bigger. This is a band composed of two guys, holed up in a Nashville studio producing soaring ambient music and touring only sparingly. This year, they released a new LP, a deluxe photobook to accompany it, a bonus EP with the book and this month they released another EP. And it’s all fantastic. I’m a huge fan of this band and I always seem to have one of their discs in the player on my nightstand. This new album has scarcely left that spot since I received it in the mail.
Key Tracks: Dust in the Devil’s Snow, Tristia
4 LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
James Murphy hit on a winning formula early on – produce infectious indie dance music with clever and self-deprecating lyrics and tour like mad with it. The guy is becoming an indie legend after only 3 albums. This is perhaps the last as LCD Soundsystem and if it is, it’s a heck of a way to go out. Every track here is a gem (with the possible exception of Drunk Girls, which I just plain don’t like). The “All My Friends” of this album is probably “I Can Change”, which is again very personal and transparent. Another great album from one of the best indie bands on the planet.
Key Tracks: I Can Change, Dance Yrself Clean
3 Jonsi – Go
Early in 2010, Sigur Ros announced they had scrapped their recordings for a new album and would go on hiatus for awhile. As fans wrung their hands, it was then announced that lead-singer Jonsi would be releasing a solo album. Separated from his bandmates, Jonsi let his hair down and recorded an album of joyous and rapturous songs. His one-of-a-kind voice takes center stage and gives wings to the quirky music and tribal drums. Singing extensively in English, Jonsi croons about growing up and having dreams, topics vastly absent from Sigur Ros. He also developed an enthralling live show to tour these songs and documented his show in a live DVD released late in the year. The word now is that Sigur Ros will start recording again very soon, but Jonsi has proven that he is a very capable solo performer. Still, let’s hope Sigur Ros soldier on for many more albums together.
Key Tracks: Go Do, Sinking Friendships
2 Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Sufjan has been mostly absent from the scene since the release of his career-defining record “Illinois” back in 2005. This year he released a digital EP and quickly followed it with this proper LP. Completely blowing up the style of his “50 States” records, this album draws more on the styles of his first two albums to produce a cataclysmic, chaotic, glitchy, dissonant and complicated masterpiece. Stevens seems to be pouring out his personal diary into these songs as he sings about unrequited love, misunderstandings and and depression. He writes about a schizophrenic painter and the apocalypse and charges his backup singers with singing lines of encouragement back to him. This could very well end up being Sufjan’s “Kid A” – the album that redefines him as an artist and pushes him to the next level. Many won’t like this album, but it’s grown on me (even more so after seeing many of the songs live) with every listen. I believe it’s a masterpiece that will become one of the most remembered albums in his catalog.
Key Tracks: Futile Devices, Vesuvius, Impossible Soul
1 Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
My favorite album of the year was Arcade Fire’s treatise on urban sprawl and the suburbs. The band clearly pushed themselves in creating a complete conceptual album that addresses the feelings of 30-somethings living in suburbia. Band leader Win Butler stated that the album is neither “a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs”, and that shows. The songs often rail against the apathy and numbness that can come from suburban living, but it never turns into a rant. Instead, the listener is ushered into the album and asked to listen and consider. I love the arrangement of the tracks on this album. We open with the title track, then the energetic “Ready to Start” begins the journey through the middle section before ending up with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyone Mountains)” which culminates the album. I love the line “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / ‘Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock’”. And “I need the darkness someone please cut the lights”. The band longs for a simpler and more honest life, something that I think we’ve all wished for at some point. This album is destined to become a classic.
Key Tracks: Ready to Start, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), We Used to Wait
Do you have a favorite album I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments! It was a great year for music and next year looks like it will be a great one too! Happy new year!