Thursday, January 6, 2011

Top 10 albums of 2010

A little belated, but here they are. Enjoy!

1) Lissie - Catching A Tiger

In a year of grandiose 'masterpieces', this unassuming little record quietly became my go-to album. Illinois hippy-chick Lissie Maurus inhabits her material completely. Her ad-libs are so perfectly delivered that they become inseparable from the body of the songs. And what great songs: Torn from the Californian country-rock handbook, drawing on the best of The Byrds and Fleetwood Mac, and moulded for the 21st Century by Kings Of Leon producer Jacquire King. Stand-out tracks When I'm Alone and In Sleep could never claim to be original, but they were drenched in melody and so alive they had a pulse. A stunning debut.

2) Robyn - Body Talk

Six months, three albums, one Grammy nomination, dozens of five star reviews and only one bad song. It was the project that had everything except an audience. Still, those who sought out Robyn Carlsson's Swedish pop odyssey fell utterly in love with it. And who could blame them?

3) Scissor Sisters - Night Work

A glance through the tracklisting tells you what to expect from Scissor Sisters' third album: Sex And Violence, Skin Tight, Harder You Get. Back on filthy form after the vaudeville tripe of Ta-Dah!, Night Work is an album of sleek, hard, sexy disco. A celebration of the freaks who come out to play after dark, it allowed Jake Shears the chance to roleplay dozens of seedy characters, the timbre and cadence of his voice changing on every track like a method actor. Perfectly sequenced and eminently danceworthy, it also contained - on Whole New Way - the year's least subtle metaphor for anal sex. So that was nice.

4) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Like Scissor Sisters, Arcade Fire escaped the drab surroundings of their upbringing through music. But while the New Yorkers ran off to an "opiate utopia", the Canucks prodded and poked at their past, trying to make sense of it all. The Suburbs is about the geography of suburbia, and the impermanence of modern life. "All of the houses they built in the Seventies finally fall... It meant nothing at all," pines Win Butler on the title track.

The Suburbs is also the record where Arcade Fire discovered the spaces between the notes, the claustrophobic bombast of their first two records giving way to something more expansive and thoughtful. Having all that space to think gave the lyrics greater impact, too.

The top of most critics' end-of-year lists, it would have done the same here if it was just 10 minutes shorter.

5) Marina And The Diamonds - The Family Jewels

Its a tricky thing to be a pop singer with artistic aspirations. Too much of the throaty yelping and people steer clear of you like the shouty racist lady at the back of the bus. Too little, and people dismiss you as a disposable pop confection. Marina never quite got the balance right, veering wildly between bonkers balladry (I Am Not A Robot) and balls-out chartbusters (Oh No!). It didn't help that her lyrics often read like they'd been lifted straight out of "Opinions For Teenage Girls - For Dummies". Regardless, those who persevered - and thank goodness there were thousands of us - were rewarded with an album rich in melodic invention, musical dexterity and surprising vulnerability. The Family Jewels, indeed.

6) Vampire Weekend - Contra

Less direct than their debut, Vampire Weekend's sophomore album nonetheless had more heart. At least, I think it did. It's hard to be sure what Ezra Koenig is on about half the time ("fake Philly cheesecake but you use real toothpaste" - eh?). Still, the melodies, the trickling guitar riffs and - above all - the frenetic, polyrhythmic drumming are like nothing else. When they inevitably grow up and turn into Sting, let's remember them like this.

7) Sarah Blasko - As Day Follows Night

My heart, already a bit gooey from listening to Australian singer Sarah Blasko's third album, completely melted when I met her in May. Charming but fragile, awkward but funny - she's everything you'd expect from listening to this most intimate of heartbreak records. Captured in a secluded studio in the heart of the Swedish winter, it's an all-too-real exploration of the end of a love affair. What makes it poignant is that the break-up came in Blasko's mid-30s, raising the spectre of spinsterhood. What stops it being utterly depressing is the nimble arrangements, the delicate beauty of her voice and, ultimately, an all-pervasive sense of hope.

8) Tinie Tempah - Disc-Overy

Tinie Tempah delivered an entire Top 10 of best lyrics this year, from "I got so many clothes I keeps 'em in my aunt's house", through to "would you risk it for a chocolate biscuit?" Musically, he was no slacker, either. His morphing breakbeats lifted grime out of the loop-it-and-leave-it quagmire, as frequently as his lyrics showed up the dumb avarice of his contemporaries (Taio Cruz marked a new low for the genre this year when he sang: "I'm wearing all my favourite brands, brands, brands, brands, brands"). Stuffed full of ideas, Tinie's album equalled, but sadly never bettered, the promise of it's singles. Oh, and it earned an extra demerit for that AWFUL title.

9) John Legend & The Roots - Wake Up!

Inspired by Barack Obama's "yes, we can" campaign, and revisiting the classic ghetto protest songs of the 1970s, this was the best band of their generation, allied to the smoothest singer of his, making a rallying call to socially-concious America. Mmm-hmm. Whatever. Simply the best covers album of the year.

10) Kid Sister - Ultraviolet

Putting the fun back in funky and the rap back in... er, "not crap", Chicago's Kid Sister delivered a spritely party album for her long-gestating debut. It didn't set the world on fire, but it did heat up my living room by a couple of degrees. Inspired by electro, handbag house, rave and "boxes of doughnuts", it left me with a big, daft grin all over my face every time I heard it. OK, it probably doesn't deserve to be considered a classic, but it was either this or Kanye banging on about intense personal issues and and his penis. I rest my case.

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