Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Best Albums of 2010 So Far - Top 10

Before I change my mind again, here are my picks for the best ten albums of the year so far:

Top 10:

10: Wolf Parade - Expo 86

It's no secret that I love Wolf Parade. Their debut was one of my absolute favorite albums of the past decade and their sophomore effort I found to be nearly as enjoyable. Their third record, Expo 86, doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessors, but it's perhaps the most cohesive work the band has yet created. Dual frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner are in fine form here, still splitting the songwriting duties but blending more seamlessly together as they craft a muscular rock 'n' roll epic that reminds me exactly why I loved them so much in the first place.

9: Fang Island - Fang Island

Perhaps the best way to introduce Fang Island would be to quote the band themselves when they described their music as "everyone high-fiving everyone." Their high-energy brand of indie rock 'n' roll focuses on heavily distorted guitar riffs, progressive arrangements, and joyously chanted choruses that make for a consistently awesome time on their self-titled album. It's an unusual yet infectious combination of musical intelligence and outrageously fun attitude that makes Fang Island an excellent breakthrough album for this talented young group. (Read My Review)

8: Patty Griffin - Downtown Church

Patty Griffin is a phenomenal singer and songwriter, but for Downtown Church she focuses primarily on the former, a risky move perhaps but an inspired one. The collection of gospel covers contains many of Griffin's best vocal performances, showing her versatility on everything from beautiful traditional hymns to soulful spirituals. She even throws in a couple tunes of her own, both of which fit perfectly with the older material. It's both an engaging genre tribute and a great record by any standard, even Griffin's own considerable catalog. (Read My Review)

7: David Karsten Daniels & Fight the Big Bull - I Mean to Live Here Still

I'll admit I'm not familiar with the previous work of David Karsten Daniels, but I found his latest effort to be a fantastic introduction. Recorded with Jazz collective Fight the Big Bull, I Mean to Live Here Still features the words of Henry David Thoreau sung over an intoxicating mix of folk, big band, and experimental jazz elements. The music switches between moments of melodic gentleness and explosive, fractured instrumentals (often in the same song), and though it can be a difficult listen at times, I Mean to Live Here Still is always captivating. One of 2010's best surprises so far.

6: The Black Keys - Brothers

After a few listens I think The Black Keys' latest--Brothers-- may be their best yet, though my love for Rubber Factory makes that difficult to say with certainty. Either way, it's a great album and their most successful in some time, proving these two still have plenty of ideas left to offer without resorting to the type of collaboration that resulted in 2008's Attack & Release. It's nice to have these two back together and operating at the highest level, cementing their status as one of the best American rock bands operating today. Hopefully they'll remain this sharp for years to come. (Read My Review)

5: Janelle Monae - The Archandroid

Janelle Monae has made one of the strangest and most interesting R&B albums in recent memory, so perhaps that's why I've been so taken with a record in a genre that generally doesn't find much space on my "best of" lists. But Monae's outlandish concept album (her full-length debut) is much more than just an entertaining oddity. This ambitious newcomer has a powerful voice and a head full of ideas that she ably executes over the album's 70-minute length. From the psychedelic ballads to the soaring pop tunes to the funky soul songs, The Archandroid is as spectacular as it is weird.

4: The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt, Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson's sophomore effort, is the most spare of folk albums, recorded with only guitar, vocals, and piano. Yet this modest setting is the perfect one for Matsson, who manages to imbue these ten simple, melodic songs with great depth. The record is similar in many respects to his debut as The Tallest Man on Earth due to the use of the same restricted instrumental palette, but the songwriting maturity and breadth of emotion on The Wild Hunt easily make this Matsson's most compelling work. (Read My Review)

3: Owen Pallett - Heartland

For his first effort after dropping his Final Fantasy moniker, Owen Pallett offers his most stirring selection of songs yet, combining his signature violin playing over fuller, more complex soundscapes than we've heard from him previously. The results aren't as immediate perhaps as his former albums, but the richness and unique beauty of these arrangements are striking, revealing more with each listen. It's hard for me to think of any album this year (save my number one pick) that I've enjoyed exploring so thoroughly. Heartland is the result of the perfect balance of ambition and ability. (Read My Review)

2: Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

Josh Ritter is one of my absolute favorite songwriters currently releasing music, so take his place so high on this list with a grain of salt if you must. But I'd argue that no matter your previous experience with the artist, you need to hear his latest creation, the wonderful So Runs the World Away. It's certainly Ritter's most expansive record, even more so than the rowdy The Historical Conquests Of..., yet somehow he manages to keep the enormous scope of the album and its various stylistic facets from escaping his grasp. Whether spinning one of his typically uniquely gorgeous stories or turning up the volume for a gritty folk-rock tune, Ritter is utterly convincing.

1: Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Making even the longest albums on this list seem brief in comparison, Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me is--simply put--epic. Three discs, eighteen songs and over two hours of music makes for an intimidating third effort from one of folk music's most intriguing and accomplished young artists, but Newsom has crafted a masterpiece that somehow needs every last minute to fully reveal its genius. And from the fantastical, winding tales to the simply gentle ballads, she creates an entrancing musical experience that repays the listener tenfold for any patience required to comprehend the album's immenseness.

Newsom sings her often otherworldly lyrics beautifully this time around, mostly dropping the child-like whine that earned her no small amount of detractors. She also introduces a broader instrumental selection, but she retains the unique elements of her sound that made her so remarkable in the first place, most notably her signature harp playing, intriguing storytelling, and knack for stunningly original melodies. Put simply, she manages to improve upon her the considerable quality of her previous work without sacrificing any of what makes her special. It's no contest in my mind, Have One On Me is the year's best album so far. (Read My Review)