After a week of teasing, confusing and enraging some of you, our countdown of the albums we have loved the most in 2010 concludes with this top 10.
In the 10th year of Drowned in Sound's existence, you would think, given the practice, that putting together the annual best albums of the year list would be a breeze. We wish we could say that was true. Sure, we've refined the formula (details here) and now know exactly how to survey the year and sum it up in a list but how to order it to best represent everyone really wasn't easy this year. To be fair on ourselves, maybe we have figured out the perfect mix for the year-end elixir but with all its great records, the year twenty-ten has totally thrown us.
Some might say 2010 wasn't the greatest year for music. Some of you have even started threads throughout the year saying as much but, respectfully, we totally and utterly disagree. This year we've seen some of our favourite artists return with records that have not only found their proverbial fiddles in fine form but consolidated years of goodwill into mainstream media attention and a whole lot of love. Sufjan Stevens and The National, in particular, have found themselves beneath the hot lights in major American TV studios and clogging up the radio airwaves throughout the globe. In doing so, they are slowly winning over a whole new audience and perhaps expanding and enriching the depth and breadth of 'our world'.
You can feel the incorrigible spirit of independence looming large across the entire length of the 75 albums in this years list. Theorists and philosophers will pinpoint landmarks such as the ability to skip tracks on CDs and how Google has replaced our need for information retention, as reasons why we are freer than our elders. I have a theory that we're living through such an explosion of creativity, not just because of the (pro) tools and outlets available to musicians but perhaps, just maybe there's one single chorus line to blame. We now have a generation of artists who were quite likely conceived to and grew up hearing Fleetwood Mac's insistence that "you can go your own way", who have since seemingly not been burdened by concepts of relevance and fitting in. In fact, across this top ten (and none moreso than in our choice for number one this year) this unshackled spirit can be felt, and its an inspiring force to be reckoned with.
As I pointed out in earlier parts of this countdown, this single-mindedness extends to our writers, community members, and to music fans as a whole, where a definitive single album everyone loves or coherent patterns of passion, incredibly hard to find. If 2010's year-end listing season marks anything, it's a strange but apparent death of consensus. Nearly every top 10 list from staff members was taken into consideration when compiling this list featuring not just different number ones but over 240 different albums! There's even a record that one staff members scored 10/10 in his review earlier this year which didn't get a single vote from any other member of our staff. These are increasingly fractured times we're living in, with people experiencing their own adventure, taking totally different paths that don't cross with users on even the very same website, through the year's editorial, discussion and releases. To add to this, nearly every publication and blog's top 10 we've seen so far has totally different albums of the year and some top 75s do not include some of our top 10. Who's right, who's wrong? - it doesn't matter, music always wins. This list will not reflect every writer nor every reader of the site, the positionings may even seem somewhat arbitrary but this is our top 10, they could all be number one but - much-like the Highlander - there can be only one...
Age of Adz
Having wrong-footed us earlier this year with his somewhat disappointing All Delighted People EP (4/10 Review), following last year's song-of-the-year contender 'You Are The Blood' on that Dark Was the Night compilation (8/10 Review), the baffingly beautiful non-narrative piece The BQE (7/10 Review) and some talk of a serious existential crisis (News story), Sufjan Stevens returned with his first proper album in five years. The pastoral brass and supple tear-jerkers of Illinoise were nowhere to be found and in their place we found a sci-fi hue that seemed to have crowd-surfed at a Kanye concert and fallen in love with Bon Iver's post-808 autotune adventures. Having said that, for every brave skip forwards Sufjan has taken with Age of Adz, this is still defiantly him, it's just that he's a man of various personas and we love him for it. Read James Skinner's full review...
This Is Happening
Any other year and James Murphy would have walked away with the album of the year title, no questions asked. However, This Is Happening finds itself as one of LCD's finest long-players to date, suffering, perhaps, from the weight of expectation that a Zeitgeist-bothering backlog begets. Despite the unfair benchmark, 'Drunk Girls', 'You Wanted a Hit' and 'Pow Pow' are easily three of the finest songs released this year, yet they too sort of distract from the fact that there's more to this record than a cursory listen suggests. Repeated spins of this third LCD LP reveal just how sophisticated and ornate this body of work is. At times This Is Happening is an understated, almost lethargic listen, from a man renown for floor-fillers but don't be fooled by first impressions because, we'll happily wager our rare Motown collections that when those rock history books are written years from now, this will be heralded as one of the finest records of the 21st Century. Read Micheal Wheeler's full review...
As 2010 drifted by, January and February's releases either slid by the wayside (Hello Delphic!) or picked up airplay and plaudits aplenty. Firmly in the latter camp, Yeasayer had what can only be described as a triumphantly successful year - you could say the exact year MGMT or Klaxons would have had if they released a record as garish as this. Kicking down January's frosted doors - probably wearing one of Karen O's outfits - was 'Ambling Alp', a track which saw the band, in a blink of an eye, transform from a world music-ish conceptual thing for earthily hipsters to Prince's cyborg ragtag rugrats. The meandering middle eights of All Hour Cymbals became anthemic choruses ripe for daytime radio and the big stages of the world's biggest festivals. Everything sort of fell into place. What a year, what a record. Read Andrzej Lukowski's full review...
The Golden Archipelago
James Skinner: Shearwater have always made gorgeous, evocative music, but when Jonathan Meiburg sings of taking a long drive into the evening amid “burning days of unnatural light” on ‘Meridian’ – and when you realise he’s referring to the irradiation of Bikini Atoll by the United States of America – the effect is chilling, spine-tingling; utterly couched in sorrow and terrible beauty.
The Golden Archipelago is a magnificent, weighty work that still yields fresh snippets of brilliance some ten months down the line, but it is also inviting and accessible in a manner that can’t quite be said of the band’s previous albums, fine though they are – there’s something intangibly special and unique that makes it such a personal favourite. Harnessing its contemplation of the world around us to the broad theme of life on remote islands, it is at once warm, spacious and serene; cold, tight and deranged; passionate without laying it on too thick; genuinely epic in scope without overreaching. Lauren summed it up pretty fine in her original review:
“It makes its statement simply by describing the things we stand to lose, their power and yet their precariousness. And that is surely one of music’s greatest abilities, when it is done well – rather than over-complicating and abstracting our surrounds, it can simply help us see what already exists as though we are looking, for the first time, with clear sight.”
These New Puritans
It seems almost pointless to remark that this is the highest placed record by an act from the UK as Hidden sounds more like it was born in some deep corner of outer space where Aztec tribes use the bones of their ancestors to collectively thud transcendental rhythms. You won't experience another record like this in 2010 because no-one else has found a way to drag together the tectonic plates of Wu-Tang and J.Dilla's continent of futuristic hip-hop with the Liars-via-Velvet Underground indie land, and on this newfoundland built a castle fit for Eno and Byrne. Or to put it another way, here are some of the words from Bruce Porter's review...
Hidden announces its extravagant aspirations on the opening track, ‘Time Xone’, where somber classically-arranged oboes, clarinets and bassoons act as an overture to the upcoming ten-track symphony. The instrumental piece makes a hasty exit for the aptly entitled ‘We Want War’, which sets the stage for the darkly romantic production you’d expect to soundtrack the cinematic battlefields of Middle-Earth. Big drums reverberate and ominous keyboards lay the groundwork for a struggle of epic proportions. Barnett’s vocal cadence alternates between rapid-fire urgency and world-weary sighs. Choral harmonies, majestic horns and plinking pianos complement the latter half of the song perfectly and despite this brilliant introduction, the best is yet to come. Discordant piano chords, xylophones and snare-drum spackle move in weird concentric circles around Barnett’s soaring vocals on ‘Hologram’. Hell, there’s even a duck whistle thrown in for good measure...
Tomorrow, in a Year
The first time an opera has made the DiS end of year list.
Here's what albums editor Andrzej Lukowski had to say about the album on release in a rare 10/10 review:
"It might seem perverse to use machines to conjure the Earth's first biological fumblings, but actually it makes sense, the music’s complete lack of warmth distancing Tomorrow, in a Year from any sense of humanity (Wahlin sounds alien and near incomprehensible). Much of the sound is generated by computer programmes, which may have been written by humans, but were modelled on animal calls and studies, rhythms a human musician couldn’t play and wouldn’t think of, rhythms from outside humanity, rhythms that exist in spite of us.
That, in a nutshell, is the appeal and triumph of Tomorrow, in a Year, a coldly overwhelming record built on algorithms Olof Dreijer spent two years tinkering with, modelled on both field recordings made on a trip to the Amazon, and Darwin’s own scientific data. Save for a few sparks at the end, Tomorrow, in a Year doesn’t romanticise or even demonstrate affection for its subject, and nor should it. It is simply a dispassionate electrical negative of a portion of nature's pitiless immensity, sculpted and tweaked for atmosphere by musicians who are masters of such things."
A more complete, grainier, barely-there album you will not hear in 2010. As part of our look back at 10 Years of Solo/Singer-Songwriters, Alex Denney wrote the following which sums this record up perfectly: There are many reasons why you need Perfume Genius’ debut Learning in your life, but for now we’ll content ourselves with this: you absolutely will not find a better lyrical passage - this year, or any - than the one which furnishes ‘Mr Petersen’ with its heart-stopping climax:
He made me a tape of Joy Division
He told me there was part of him missing
When I was sixteen, he jumped off a building
Mr Petersen, I know you were ready to go
I hope there’s room for you up above, or down below
The story of a schoolboy’s questionable relationship with a teacher who subsequently commits suicide, the words here represent a tour-de-force of smart simplicity; a lesson to the dullards that now litter the singer-songwriter’s landscape with their ritualised neediness and GCSE student’s feel for the wondrous gift of metaphor.
It’s a great, great moment, but by no means unique - Learning is a frequently shocking canvas filled with brave, intuitive strokes that draw heavily for lyrical content on the troubled history of one Mike Hadreas, a 26-year-old department store attendant prone to bursting into tears while doing the washing up.
Moving back to his mother’s home in Everett, Washington after a stint in New York found him flirting with personal disaster, the previously self-conscious Hadreas suddenly found himself able to face down his demons and write through his pain: “Something cracked. I didn’t give a fuck anymore and I had this really clear idea of what I wanted to say, regardless of how it sounded.”
Mixing broadly hymnal stabs of piano and grief-stricken synths, Perfume Genius’ music comes off like an inspired mix of Daniel Johnston and Atlas Sound without the trick-bag of FX, but it’s Hadreas’ bare-bones approach to storytelling and insistence on beauty in this cruellest of all possible worlds that lingers longest. A work of demolishing beauty.
Last year, DiS sipped a coffee with Chino & co. and had a pad full of questions regarding their forthcoming record. Pleasantries dispersed with, we then discovered that the entire record had recently been scrapped. Whilst the new songs, which would eventually become Diamond Eyes, were still in their gestation period, the band wanted to talk about nothing but M83 and Kode9, which isn't what usually happens when we natter with 'metal' bands. We were hardly shocked as the band's love of everyone from Mogwai to The Smiths, is no big secret. If you really listened out for them, you could feel the influence of Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel and The Cure casting shadows over Deftones career triumph White Pony. Two records later and Diamond Eyes sees the band returning to the drawing board, cross-pollinating these wide-screen electronic influences in ways that once again, are there, if you really listen out for them. Stepping back, as this record ravages every crevice of your being, there's something beyond any rock, metal or indie-influenced album we've ever heard. Diamond Eyes has some of the bands trademark brutality, sure, they have hardly mellowed but there is also such a palette of subtle and vivid almost-post-rock textures that you're sucked into the records universe and dragged around until it spits you out, breathless, wondering whether to listen to it again or have a bit of a lie down. Read Brad Barrett's review...
Debate about whether or not this is better than Boxer is utterly futile. In fact, you might as well argue whether cheesecake is nicer than carrot cake or whether brown kittens are cuter than black kittens, the fact of the matter is, all answers point to things better than anything else on earth. DiS' love of The National's life-lifting misery-dwelling intensity knows no real limits. In fact, as I type this I wonder why we didn't just make it album of the year in the first place because, all arguments aside, this is one of the best records released this year and the best record they've ever made but we'll probably only realise this three or four years from now. Read James Skinner's 9/10 review and Alexander Tudor's amazingly in-depth but truly fascinating First Listen piece.
Does It Look Like I’m Here?
"Who?" "What?" And if you're not mouthing that to yourself, you're likely doing one of those knowing nods. As noted in much of the pre-amblings for these year-end list pieces, 2010 was an incredibly fractured year, with people exploring various different sub-genres and spirally down to the depths of niches. Whichever way people were exploring, time and time again this electronica with a dash of drone record was highlighted on blogs, in quality magazines but especially in threads on the boards of this very website. In previous years the upper echelons of DiS end of year lists have featured the likes of Fuck Buttons and Electrelane but rarely has a record come from the instrumental leftfield and burrowed its way into so many record collections and been so quietly celebrated by those lucky enough to have stumbled across it. This is our album of the year because from start to finish, your ears are awash in digital detritus whilst your hyper-accelerated mind relaxes. Maybe the love stems from its ambience, which drifts from computer games soundtrack to Pink Floyd-fuelled late night road trips to woozy, hazy, dreamy guitars at the crossroads of post-rock and shoegaze. Perhaps it's more simple than that: Does It Look Like I'm Here? is perfectly crafted and, whilst seemingly indulgent, takes you wherever you want it to.
Drowned in Sound's Favourite Albums of 2010: Top Ten
1) Emeralds Does It Look Like I’m Here?
2) The National High Violet
3) Deftones Diamond Eyes
4) Perfume Genius Learning
5) The Knife Tomorrow, In a Year
6) These New Puritans Hidden
7) Shearwater The Golden Archipelago
8) Yeasayer Odd Blood
9) LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening
10) Sufjan Stevens Age of Adz
50-11 is here
75-51 is here
...previous albums of the year 2001-2009
You can hear a track from each album via this Spotify playlist and hear the (available) albums in full via this Spotify playlist. Check back next week for our tracks of the year and singles of the year from Wendy Roby who does our hugely popular singles column every Monday. Plus we have a guide to 2011 coming your way next week.
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Amazon: Buy The Top 25 on Vinyl