Friday, January 13, 2012

The Best Albums of 2010 (Dec. 2010)

A Subjective Critique of This Year's Best Music

Originally published for the Bismarck State College Mystician back in December, 2010.
Top ten lists. For some reason, top cultural and media commentators have decided the best way to critique our media is by listing them from best to worse.
This time of year is even worse. As the year closes, the media shoves in our faces so many "best of the year" lists its ridiculous. Its even worse, seeing how we're at the end of a decade.
So I refuse to be a part of it. I know that I spend every month talking about music, but I won't resort to something so gimmicky as a "top ten list."
I will, however, present an intelligent critique of my favorite artists to release material this year. And I'll do it by evaluating them from best to worst. <Sighs>

This was a weird year for music.
For indie fans it was a fairly good year, though some might say 2009 was much stronger.  Honestly, how could anyone outdo The Decemberists’ “Hazards of Love” or Muse’s “The Resistance?”
In terms of mainstream music, there’s not much to say. Just another year of shallow, electropop acts such as Kei$ha and Lady Gaga (as reflected in this year’s grammy nominations).
I, myself, found it to be a weaker year. Mostly because many of my favorite artists had either released material in 2009 or are releasing material in 2011. That being the case, let’s take a look at the albums I’ve found to be the “Best of 2010.”

Honorable Mentions:

Sara Bareilles - Kaleidoscope Heart
Genre: Pop Rock/Soul
Singer-Songwriter Sara Bareilles releases her second major release Kaleidoscope Heart, trying to pick up steam after her last album Little Voices grew recognition for the track "Love Song." Sadly, that was the only track to really gain widespread recognition. Thankfully, for fans, the album itself was anything but a one-hit wonder. Same could be said for Kaleidoscope Heart, as her soulful voice delivers some powerful and diverse tracks, ranging from upbeat, catchy Indie Pop to heavy, heartfelt R&B – all of which are fueled by Bareilles' signature piano playing.

Notable Tracks: Uncharted, Hold My Heart, King of Anything, Bluebird
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Genre: Indie Rock
Indie rockers Arcade Fire return with their notable mix of 60s inspired minimalistic garage rock, classical-infused melodies (often dubbed "baroque pop") and emotive, falsetto vocals. The Suburbs has quickly gained recognition among critics and even earned themselves a Grammy Nomination for "Album of the Year"(which they later won). I will say that for minimalistic Indie-Rock (which usually isn't my thing) the album has its catchy moments and some surprisingly eclectic ones (check out "Ready To Start").

Notable Tracks: Ready To Start, City With No Children, Half Light I & II, We Used To Wait

Vampire Weekend - Contra
Genre: Indie Rock
Talk about a complete 180 for a band that could also simply be classified as "Indie Rock." Vampire Weekend follows its eponymous debut album with Contra, an experimental, catchy romp full of ethnic beats and unique, bizarre instrumentation. Any album that can jump from marimbas (Guatemalan xylophone) and zabumba (Brazilian bass drum) to orchestral strings in one song is okay in my book.

Notable Tracks: Horchata, White Sky, Giving Up The Gun, Run

Angels & Airwaves - LOVE
Genre: Pop Punk/Dream Pop/Experimental-Progressive
Since their debut with We Don't Need To Whisper, Tom DeLonge's (of Blink 182) Dream Pop side-project has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. That is, until their most recent release - which I have no shame in admitting my love for. All their Floyd-esque Space Rock experimentation from their last two albums culminates into pure Prog Rock brilliance with LOVE: a catchy, but complex concept album filled with Experimental/Ambient melodies and Pop-Punk hooks inspired by – as the album title implies – love.

Notable Tracks:  The Flight of Apollo, Shove, The Moon-Atomic (...Fragments and Fictions), Soul Survivor (...2012)
Coheed and Cambria - Year of the Black Rainbow
Genre: Progressive Metal/Emo
As a huge fan of Coheed, this ought to be  much higher on the list. Sadly, there's a reason it's so low. It was a huge disappointment. I don't know why, but they took a huge backstep with this album. C&C had slowly been moving away from their emo roots, continuing to evolve into Progressive Metal – which culminated in their epic opus No World Tomorrow. Unfortunately, YotBR does not have the same epic feel. It's slow moving and contains more poppy, melodic moments reminiscent of their earlier work. The one good thing I have to point out is the drum work. Their new drummer Chris Pennie did an amazing job, adding some bad-ass drum work to a band that's mostly known for their guitars.

Notable Tracks: The Broken, Guns of Summer, Here We Are Juggernaut, The Shattered Symphony
Deftones - Diamond Eyes
Genre: Alternative Metal/Experimental
The cult favorite Alternative Metal band Deftones returns with a new album wrought with a tragic history. While in the middle of recording Euros, a follow-up to 2006's Saturday Night Wrist, the band suffered the loss of their bass player Chi Cheng who was left in a coma after being inured in a car accident. The band put Euros on hold and after four years went on to record Diamond Eyes with bassist Sergio Vegas. Diamond Eyes is a very different album, implementing some of the experimentation seen on their last few albums while also retaining a rawer feel similar to their earlier work. What results is probably one of their most notable albums since White Pony.

Notable Tracks: Diamond Eyes, You've Seen The Butcher, Beauty School, Sextape
Serj Tankian - Imperfect Harmonies
Genre:  Alternative Metal/Symphonic Prog
Serj Tankian of System of a Down fame follows-up his SoaD extension Elect The Dead with something far more epic. While Elect The Dead contains work similar to SoaD and most likely served for Tankian to release additional material on his own terms, Imperfect Harmonies moves away into its own unique style experimenting with more complex, progressive compositions paired with his use of orchestral music as well as Jazz and Electronica. This unique opus is also complimented by Tankian steering away from his typical political infused lyrics for those of a more abstract and philosophical nature. Overall, the album is quite the fun treat and a must for System of a Down fans.

Notable Tracks: Disowned Inc, Deserving, Reconstructive Demonstration, Left of Center
Ozzy Osbourne - Scream
Genre: Heavy Metal
The 80s' favorite shock rocker is back to prove that he's never too old to kick ass. The former Black Sabbath singer's new record is, by far, one his strongest in years. After 2001's unbalanced Down To Earth and 2007's shallow, but "pop friendly" Black Rain, many Ozzy fans felt he needed to return to his roots. And thus we have Scream – a very heavy, old school romp opening with the badass, 6 minute "Let It Die." From their we get some radio friendly tracks like "Let Me Hear You Scream" which are thankfully balanced by more epic, album-oriented tracks like "Diggin' Me Down" and "I Want It More" proving Ozzy is still both a juggernaut of marketing and heavy metal.

Notable Tracks: Let It Die, Soul Sucker, Diggin' Me Down, Life Won't Wait

Gorillaz - Plastic Eyes
Genre: Trip-Hop/Dream Pop
Producer and singer-songwriter Damon Albarn's virtual band and supergroup returns to world of hip-hop with a new  record, continuing with its genre-breaking experimentation. This time, the Gorillaz jump into the world of 80s influenced synth-pop with tracks like "Rhinstone Eyes," "Stylo," "Empire Ants" and "On Melancholy Hill." Backed up by a huge arsenal of hip-hop all-stars (including Mos Def, De La Soul and Snoop Dogg) this record's experimentation launches the band way beyond its undeserved reputation of being a "novelty act." Rather it is an ever evolving act that transcends both genres and musical conventions.

Notable Tracks: Rhinestone Eyes, Superfast Jellyfish, Empire Ants, Cloud of Unknowing

Arsis - Starve For The Devil
Genre: Technical Death Metal/Thrash Metal
What do you do after you've released an album that epitomizes your chosen genre to the infinite degree – forever being known as a quintessential record of that said genre? You release something completely different.
Arsis' 2008 release We Are The Nightmare was seen by critics as being one of the quintessential albums of Technical Death Metal and the very peak of what Arsis was growing to be. Not being able to top that, Arsis' Starve For The Devil strives to be something very different – and very fun. Leaning away from pure Technical Death Metal, Starve For The Devil plays around with Thrash Metal and thankfully doesn't take itself to seriously with campy, tongue-in-cheek tracks like "Forced To Rock."

Notable Tracks: Force To Rock, The Ten of Swords, Sick Perfection, Half Past Corpse O'Clock

Now that we're done humoring the bands that didn't make the list, let's move on to the true top ten of 2010:

10. Demians - Mute
Genre: Progressive Metal/Post-Grunge
The French Progressive Rock group Demians debuted back in 2008 with Building an Empire, an album drenched in Post-Grunge and Alternative Metal influence. With their dynamic and multi-layered sound, they proved the Post-Grunge genre actually has potential if creative and talented artisans are given the reigns.
Their newest album, Mute, pushes the boundaries further experimenting with classical piano and strings and multi-ethnic guitar. The album is a strong transition for the band, brimming with mellow and emotional elements that sometimes steer away from the heavy, grungy feel of their first album.

Notable Tracks: Swing of the Airwaves, Feel Alive, Porcelain, Overhead

9. The Black Keys - Brothers
Genre: Hard Rock/Blues
The Akron, Ohio based act The Black Keys has been around for less than 10 years, but they sound like they’ve been creating acid fueled Blues since the days of Woodstock.
Their newest album, Brothers, is mind blowing to say the least. While they churn out those hard, funky hits the fans love, they still evolve and experiment. The albums is nearly an hour long and is filled with 15 songs that experiment and take risks that other bands wouldn’t dare to make 10 years into their career, yet there still remains very little filler. Fans of the band will enjoy every last second of this wonderful album.

Notable Tracks: Everlasting Light, Next Girl, Too Afraid To Love, Sinister Kid

8. Gogol Bordello - Trans-Continental Hustle
Genre: Gypsy Punk
This New York group is a beautiful mess of mangled Ukrainian folk, pseudo-Gypsy music and Punk Rock. The very premise should make most cringe, but the band’s pure energy and charisma win over fans. They’re one of those groups that are all about the live shows. That being the case, their albums tend to be raw and rough around the ages.
So fans were skeptical when they made their major label debut with the help of super producer Rick Rubin. What results is a more refined, mature album. Some fans may complain about a small drop in energy, but it makes up for it an increase in artistic and lyrical viability. Some may disagree, but the album’s more refined production allowed for more emotion to filter through, rather than just being about energetic, live shows.

Notable Tracks: My Companjera, Rebellious Love, When Universes Collide, Break The Spell

7. Nellie McKay - Home Sweet Mobile Home
Genre: Indie Pop/Jazz/Reggae
Nellie McKay is best described as a sassy, Indie-tinged singer-songwriter obsessed with Cabaret and Doris Day. The core of her material tends to be influenced by 20s – 40s Jazz/Swing, but has the penchant to experiment with everything including Hip-Hop, Funk and Disco. Even more mind-boggling is her sassy lyrical sensibilities, varying from down-to-earth to ironically profane.
McKay’s new album, Home Sweet Mobile Home, dives deeper into her large bag of rotating genres. The main musical motif focuses around tropical sensibilities, experimenting with Reggae/Hip-Hop and Tropical, Acoustic Rock (a la Jack Johnson). With Mckay straying away from politically charged lyrics this time around, her focus on more mellow and emotional themes pairs off with the atmospheric feel of the album creating something more relaxing in comparison to her typical spunky, energy charged material.

Notable Tracks: Bruise on the Sky, Please, Dispossessed, Bodega

6. Hank Williams III - Rebel Within
Genre: Country/Punk Rock/Metal
Hank Williams III’s mix of Outlaw Country and Punk Rock has always sought to stir up trouble and show the darker side of southern culture, but his newest has taken an interesting turn. While there are still many insanity charged Psychobilly songs, Rebel Within is tinged with some dark, confessional and emotionally charged themes. Tracks like "#5" confess Williams’ struggles with addiction and his fear of death, having seen several of his friends die from similar habits. Rebel Within's emotional and mellow leanings is almost reminiscent of his grandfather’s material and appears to suggest a new turn in Williams' career.

Notable Tracks: Rebel Within, Lost in Oklahoma, Moonshiner's Life, #5

5. Kamelot - Poetry for the Poisoned
Genre: Power Metal/Progessive Metal
This Florida-based Symphonic Power Metal band’s ninth album, Poetry for the Poisoned, fully realizes a transition the band started back with their sixth album, Epica. Kamelot first started as an a-typical nerdtastic, cheesy power metal group. But Epica saw the band transition to a darker, more progressive sound.
Poetry for the Poisoned is a brilliant opus, filled with both emotion and complexity. The album takes some big risks, playing with more conceptual and complex tracks such as the two-part "Dear Editor/The Zodiac" or the four-part titular suite "Poetry for the Poisoned." But these risks pay off, especially with the help of guest vocalist Simmone Simon, the female vocalist for the band Epica. Overall, Poetry for the Poisoned is a dark, but endearing album that grows with every listen.

Notable Tracks: The Great Pandemonium, The Zodiac, House on a Hill, Seal of Woven Years

4. Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier
Genre: Power Metal/Progressive Metal
It’s been a long time coming, but a true Iron Maiden comeback is finally here! Iron Maiden sadly has been going through transition after transition, and it never left the band as it good as it once was. Between their shift in style in the 90s and vocalist Bruce Dickinson’ departure and return, the bands has never felt like the same group that created gems such as "Hallowed Be Thy Name."
The Final Frontier sees Iron Maiden return to form. Not only is Bruce Dickinson back, but he is showcasing great vocals compared to the horrendous vocal work on 2007’s A Matter of Life and Death. But what really shines is the musical and lyrical composition. The songs are complex and inventive and the lyrical themes are reminiscent of their older gems. The Final Frontier is easily the band’s most progressive album and one of the best since Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Notable Tracks: Satellite 15...The Final Frontier, The Alchemist, Isle of Avalon, The Man Who Would Be King

3. Pain of Salvation - Road Salt One
Genre: Progressive Metal/Acid Rock
The unique and twisted Swedish Prog Metal group, Pain of Salvation, seems to reinvent themselves every album. And after their last album, Scarsick, they really needed it. Their 2007 album saw a drastic shift in sound that was universally panned for its utter lack of emotion and its extreme political views.
Their newest album, Road Salt One, saw another drastic change, one that the band describes as "jam oriented," sounding like it was "recorded live in the recording room." Essentially the band simplified its sound and began experimenting with psychedelic-blues. What results is a dark, distorted acidfest that sounds like someone traveled back 40 years in time and introduced Jim Morrison to Goth Metal.

Notable Tracks: No Way, Sisters, Sleeping Under The Stairs, Linoleum

2. Oceansize - Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up
Genre: Progressive Rock/Post-Rock
The British Experimental/Progressive band Oceansize made some interesting directional changes with their newest album, Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up. Many have described the album as their heaviest yet – sparking fierce debates in comparison to their 2007 release Frames. Heaviness aside, the album could instead be described as darker and more emotionally driven.
The album seems to border on two extremes, containing some of the softest and most emotional songs such as "Oscar Acceptance Speech" and "Silent/Transparent" while "Build Us A Rocket Then . . ." is definitely one of their heaviest songs yet. Interestingly, the band's signature Post-Rock elements are far more subtle this time around, usually buried in some of their softer tracks. Overall, this is another risky album that pays off and proves Oceansize is one of the most unique bands out there right now.

Notable Tracks: SuperImposer, Build Us a Rocket Then . . ., Ransoms, Silent/Transparent

1. Pure Reason Revolution - Hammer & Anvil
Genre: Experimental-Progressive/Electronica
After the drastic changes Pure Reason Revolution made with their last album one had to wonder just how they were going to top themselves. Well, they cleaned up their sound and created a much more balanced album that push their new Electronica influences to the limit.
Hammer & Anvil takes everything that made Amor Vinci Omni amazing and fixed nearly all its faults. Never has their been an Electronica album with such an epic and progressive feel to it.  With steady, multilayered tracks such as "Black Mourning" and powerful, aggressive tracks such as "Blitzkrieg" and "Patriarch" the album is already addictive. But the hypnotically beautiful “Armistice” really pushes this album over the edge. And then "Over The Top" is just a fun, incredibly random rave track that comes right out of left field. Needless to say, this album is brilliant and destroys any skepticism over Pure Reason Revolution’s new sound.

Notable Tracks: Black Mourning, Patriarch, Open Insurrection, Armistice

1 comment:

  1. Wow, lot's of stuff I haven't heard on here. Arsis' Starve For The Devil is a killer album, but stacked up against A Celebration Of Guilt and A Diamond For Disease it just doesn't hold up quite as well, but I'd say it's on par with United In Regret. Of course We Are The Nightmare is definitely their Master Of Puppets.

    I don't have any kind words about Imperfect Harmonies. I get what Serj was going for, but it seemed very rushed. He took his time on Elect The Dead and you can definitely tell, but IH seems like a half-assed attempt at trying something different just for the sake of trying something different, and it was a total miss. But on the bright side, the lack of album sales was a big push in the reuniting of the almighty SOAD, and you can't not like that.