So I'm reading all these lists, these lists that come out at this time of year, detailing the best records of the year. And to my surprise a lot of the records at or near the tops of these lists are records I've heard and can honestly say (quietly, because it's a secret) they're not that good. They're not that bad, either; but they're flawed enough that they don't really deserve the kudos they're getting. Not to be a hater or cynic, but I mean, these lists are looking more like just lists of records, with no regard for "best." Taking my cue, I thought I'd offer up my own list of records. This is roughly every 2010 album I heard in full this year. Though the list is alphabetical, those I find truly outstanding, I've ranked.
The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
The first eight tracks of this album, and the last (real) track, are actually pretty good! If this album were only ten tracks long I’d call it a return to form. But it’s sixteen tracks long and the second half is mostly redundant and monotonous.
Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti: Before Today
Things start so promisingly with "Bright Lit Blue Sky," one of the best tributes to early Who I've ever heard. But Before Today's decline is so steep and so rapid that it almost becomes entertaining just listening to how much worse each successive track gets.
1. Arp: The Soft Wave
The best album of the year and no one seems to have noticed! The Soft Wave is a revelation and all you folks championing Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never (no disrespect) need to get with Arp, who made a beautiful and melodic and rhythmic and stunning work of art. He outdid them all.
Beach House: Teen Dream
Solid from beginning to end, their best album so far. But let me emphasize that “solid” is not the most emphatic of positive adjectives.
Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love
When they get it right (which is half the time), it’s as good as the great stuff on their last few albums. When they get it wrong (half the time), it’s phoned-in crap. Which makes me not really want to bother with the good stuff because their last two albums are consistently great.
The Books: The Way Out
Thought I loved this when it first came out, but it became more and more irritating the more I listened to it.
Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record
Mostly solid—there’s that word again!—but the third-best Broken Social Scene (out of four!) is not very exciting. Like the Arcade Fire they could have chopped at least five songs off this record (including the last three) and it would have been much tighter. Still, “Sweetest Kill” almost makes the whole record worth it.
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
Someone needs to tell Bradford Cox he needs a drummer on EVERY SONG. When he gets strummy and zoney, shit gets boring. Makes for a patchy record with a few pretty great songs. Microcastle suffered in the same way (though its highs were higher than this record’s).
Dr. Dog: Shame Shame
A solid (uh…) effort from an underrated band that knows how to pen a great rock song. Their last album, for me, is borderline transcendent. I think the bar was too high for Dr. Dog to do better this time around. Still, a good album.
Emeralds: Does it Look Like I’m Here?
It took listening to Oneohtrix Point Never and Arp this year to make me realize that Emeralds mostly doesn’t do it for me. Their tracks lack elegance; they’re layer after layer after layer of sound, adding up to a dense white mess. Sometimes it works but often it exhausts me. It’s not a bad approach—I can intellectualize it and make myself believe it’s great—but give me melody and space (i.e., give me Arp).
Four Tet: There is Love in You
My brilliant wife: “Somewhere, right now, this is playing in the lobby of a boutique hotel.”
Fuck this band and fuck this trend of indie R&B/White Soul Revival/Saxual Assault and fuck you if you like it.
Holy Fuck: Latin
This record fell flat. It just didn’t have the edge of their last record.
Isan: Glow in the Dark Safari Set
3. Josh Ritter: So Runs the World Away
Ritter’s best album.
- Josh Ritter: Change of Time
I love the new hypnotic krautrocky Jose Gonzalez, though like Beach House it never quite rises above itself. Every track is good but every track sounds like every other track. Solid!
LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening
The album’s highest point is “I Can Change,” which is almost as excellent as “All My Friends” and “Something Great” but loses points for pushing the same buttons. The rest of the album is consistently good or really good (and doesn’t fall off like Sound of Silver does). In some ways I think I’ll prefer this album, in the long run, to James Murphy’s others.
Midlake: Courage of Others
The band responsible for my favorite album of 2006 is responsible for one of my least favorite albums of 2010. What a dour, sour, lackluster, sad-sack, lifeless bowl of mush.
The New Pornographers: Together
One of the most consistently amazing bands of the decade put out a consistently okay record. It’s the only New Pornographers album that doesn’t contain a single five-star song.
5. Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal
Up there with my other favorite albums of the year.
- Oneohtrix Point Never: Stress Waves
At 70 tracks, it’s about 50 tracks too long. It’s starts to feel like you’re watching a magician do the same card trick over and over and over, until finally you’ve figured how to do the trick yourself.
2. The Radio Dept.: Clinging to a Scheme
If I were making a top ten albums list, this would be #2. And yet if I were making a top ten songs list, nothing on here would make the list. Weird yet true. Still, I love the Radio Dept. and I fully expect this album to stay in rotation for years—I’m not exaggerating!
- The Radio Dept.: A Token Of Gratitude
4. Richard Catwrangleur: House of the Spirit-Wrestler!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ditch all the lo-fi aesthetes du’jour and get with the dude who writes fucking awesome songs. (Go figure, it’s the songs that matter!) You can download this album for free right now!
- Richard Catwrangleur: Lifeline
The Ruby Suns: Fight Softly
The Ruby Suns’ last album was unfairly ignored; this one was fairly ignored.
School of Seven Bells: Disconnect from Desire
Not a bad album but not very compelling either.
6. Spoon: Transference
Spoon’s third- or fourth-best album is still one of the best albums of the year. Does any band deserve your ongoing attention and respect more than Spoon?
- Spoon: Is Love Forever?
Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz
To Sufjan’s credit, his transition into electronica almost succeeds—for the first four tracks on this album, at least. Unfortunately The Age of Adz gets bogged down quickly—less by the nothing-specialness of the beats than by Sufjan’s unyielding straining-under-the-weight-of-my-sadness vocal delivery. He needs to get out of his own head. Also that last 25-minute song is a perfect illustration of how Sufjan's need for maximalism gets in the way of his actual artistry. The whole track is like a parody of the (already long) album that came before it; it's like he wrote a 25-minute question, asking why we wasted our time with the first forty minutes.
Superchunk: Majesty Shredding
Indie icons of yore put out a surprisingly solid album ten years since their last. Points for not sucking now that they're elderly... but it's still, you know, solid.
Vampire Weekend: Contra
Vampire Weekend turned in an album that is nearly as great as their debut, suffering only for a lack of newness. Points deducted for making me articulate the thought, “I wish Coldplay were singing this” whenever the final song comes on.
The Walkmen: Lisbon
The Walkmen made a great record that's not as great as their last great album (their greatest album), but it's still pretty great—if you can handle the mood that the Walkmen puts you in.