As was teased in the best films post last week, here is the second half of O&T’s retrospective on 2010 in music and film. Whilst compiling both lists was quite tough, this top five provided a stern, stern test indeed. I could quite easily map out the contenders for the best films of last year, but the shortlist of albums quickly escalated above double figures. Suffice to say, 2010 was a cracking year for music, so without further rambling, here’s the picks of your humble author for the title of best album. Reverse order = tension.
Bounding into the number five slot, funky basslines and bizarrely-named singer and all, it’s Total Life Forever by Foals.
Number five was probably the most difficult position to fill on this list, and there was much furrowing of brows as the fifth slot continually changed hands. In the end, Foals’ second album won the day. Why? Well, for someone who enjoyed, but did not particularly adore, the band’s first album Antidotes, it was one of the most unexpected thrills of my musical year. Jam-packed with brilliant tunes, it manages to be accessible without being derivative, and to be electronic without being introspective. A song like the super ‘Spanish Sahara’ is a symbol of what Foals have achieved here; their understanding of song construction has come on leaps and bounds, and the with this track – also the album’s lead single – they shift effortlessly through tonal and stylistic gears as smoothly a a Cadillac on a newly-paved street. Of course, TLF also features some incredibly funky tracks which will be more familiar to their fans, but even these tunes are markedly improved, lyrically and melodically. Whether you fancy rocking out in your room or quietly enjoying a few songs, Foals’ second album can provide the perfect musical accompaniment. In spades.
Best tracks: ‘Total Life Forever’, ‘Spanish Sahara’, ‘Alabaster’, ‘Blue Blood’.
Imma’ let this list finish, but I just wanna say that this album was the fourth best this year. It’s Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Welcome back. This is probably the most apt phrase to use when talking about Kanye West’s most recent album. After the crushingly disappointing 808s and Heartbreak, Yeezy – as I’m sure I’m not allowed to call him – has produced a brilliant renaissance of an album, rebounding from a slide in quality evident in both his last two albums. The problem with West’s recent output has been twofold: one, the lack of fun being had on record, that trademark wit and joy lost amid a sea of self-pity; two, a serious absence of the kind of clever beats associated with him ever since he was producing for Jay-Z. What’s so good about MBDTF is its range. If you want a club banger, there’s ‘Power’. If you want hooks, there are some of the best since Late Registration. Now, when West attacks the cult of celebrity, it works far better than before and feels less narcissistic, now that he’s seen both sides of the fame coin, been both adored and despised. Creative sampling, biting lyrics and awesome beats, West’s fifth album has it all, and marks a rebirth for a much-maligned, but recently much-missed, rap star.
Best tracks: ‘Dark Fantasy’, ‘Power’, ‘Lost in the World’, ‘All of the Lights’.
P.S. Ordinarily there would be a video here, but UMG has successfully blocked embedding on every video on YouTube related to this album. Still unsure as to whether plaudits or swearwords should be directed towards them.
Number three is the finest Swedish folk artist I’ve ever heard. It’s The Tallest Man on Earth’s The Wild Hunt.
After the fantastic Shallow Grave, it was going to be tough for Kristian Mattson – better known by his moniker The Tallest Man on Earth – to make further forward strides with his sophomore record. As a real fan of what had come before, I had reservations (just like Wilco) about what was to come. But after about 2 minutes of The Wild Hunt, my fears were allayed and I sat back to enjoy the best folk record in a year filled with them. The relationship between Matsson’s terrific vocals and his insanely melodic and intricate guitar is bordering on symbiosis: simply put, the two move together through every high and low, ballad and toe-tapper, shout and whisper. With a distinctive lyrical style harking back to Nick Drake, TTMoE’s songs are sometimes fantastical in tone, even whimsical in the case of ‘King of Spain’, but always remain firmly tied to the guitar which drives them, rather than meandering off alone. One of music’s few originals at the moment, and one of its most beguiling live acts, Matsson’s album is perfect listening anytime, able to excite or serenade, thrill or chill. And his EP wasn’t half bad either.
Best tracks: ‘The Wild Hunt’, ‘Burden of Tomorrow’, ‘King of Spain’, ‘A Lion’s Heart’.
In at number two, the best sombre-yet-wonderful album of the year, The National’s High Violet.
Rarely have I listened to an album featuring as little cheer as The National’s 2010 release. The group’s lead singer, Matt Berninger, imbues his vocals with such pained emotion that it’s quite tough to imagine him ever having a nice day. But so distinctive and incredible is his leading baritone that it really works. The National have been together for some time now, but I’d never really been hooked by what I’d heard until High Violet found its way onto my stereo. A really terrific record, fully deserving of all the praise lavished upon it, it’s full of pain for sure, but it also contains some magnificent high points, with a sound that takes the best of Joy Division, sprinkles in some Bloc Party pounding drums and finishes it all with the kind of storytelling lyrics Leonard Cohen would no doubt enjoy. Berninger’s vocals, though, are what really make this record so good, his ability to communicate intimately with the listener is perhaps unmatched by any vocalist anywhere; he and The National have made an album that can lift or sink the mood, but is certain to connect with everyone who listens to it.
Best tracks: ‘Terrible Love’, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, ‘England’.
Wearing the gold medal (and some kind of avant-garde, possibly symbolic costume involving feathers) it’s Jónsi’s début album Go.
To anyone who read my initial review of this record, the selection of the Sigur Rós frontman’s first release as the best of 2010 will come as no surprise. Quite frankly, I knew as soon as I heard it that the enigmatic Icelander’s album would make the top spot of this list. Able to embrace a spectrum of sound that most people can only dream about, Jónsi has created what could easily be described as a classical symphony, full of movements and fugues and orchestral arrangements without being egotistical or OTT. The epic highs of the album are irresistibly good, putting an electronic twist on the wonderful music that Sigur Rós have been making for a decade, and featuring some of Jónsi’s best vocals to date, not to mention some marvellous lyrics. I was really bowled over when I first heard this album, and my opinion of it has not diminished at all. The man BBC Radio 1 (tortuously) insist on calling ‘Jonesy’ is a worthy recipient of the accolade of best album of 2010. And in year with such an incredible number of great albums, that’s no mean feat.
Best tracks: ‘Go Do’, ‘Sinking Friendships’, ‘Boy Lilikoi’, ‘Around Us’.
As I said at the top of this post, the list of contenders was long, so I’d like to take this chance to laud the following records, all of which received strong consideration and are worthy of anyone’s time and attention:
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz, Caribou – Swim, Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy, Broken Bells – Broken Bells, Beach House – Teen Dream, Vampire Weekend – Contra, Midlake – The Courage of Others, Arcade Fire – The Suburbs, The Album Leaf – A Chorus of Storytellers.