Ranting About Music’s year-end round up reaches its penultimate entry today with my list of what I think are the best/my favorite albums of the year. Such a list isn’t going to be definitive, especially in a year that A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden calls “The Year of No Important Albums”, but I consider each of these a cut above the rest, and albums I listened to/loved the most. Why seven? Why the hell not, let’s begin!
7. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
The state of rock in 2010 was absolutely dismal; mainstream rock struggled under the air of club pop and Autotune R&B. Leave it to Foo Fighters frontman, and overall nice guy Dave Grohl, to look ahead at 2011 and say, “Challenge accepted”. Recorded in Grohl’s garage studio, and produced by alt. rock veteran Butch Vig (looking forward to that new Garbage record, Butch), Wasted Light is the Foos’ most bare-knuckle album to date. Opener “Bridge Burning” acts as a one-song summary of what the band’s done best over seven albums, and “Rope” is one of the group’s most controlled singles in years. The band never lets up over nine other tracks, including the bone-crushing “White Limo” and the frantic “A Matter of Time”. Vig’s production makes these songs sound simultaneously headphone and arena friendly, and the band rocks as hard in their 40s as they did in their 20s.
6. Candy Hearts – Everything’s Amazing & Nobody’s Happy
New Jersey pop-punksters Candy Hearts sharpened up just about every aspect of their music for Everything’s Amazing, the follow-up to last year’s great Ripped Up Jeans and Silly Dreams. The threadbare production gives the songs more punch without slowing them down; “Lighter Than the Air”, “Jawbreaker”, and “What I’m Made Of” all bristle with energy. Also improved is lead singer/songwriter Mariel Loveland; her lyrics come in clearer, and she sounds more confident in front of the mic. There’s also something about her voice and lyrics that feels immediately relateable whether they’re about a night out, or not knowing what to say. Listening to Everything’s Amazing is like wearing your favorite hoodie; fuzzy, comforting, and best on slower days.
5. The Roots – Undun
Undun is the biggest argument against making year-end lists before December 15th that I can think of. A year and a half after How I Got Over, The Roots are back with undun, their first concept album. Starting with the death of protagonist Redford Stevens (an urban youth) and working backwards through his day-to-day life, undun doesn’t glamorize street light, nor does it really condemn it. Black Thought and his collaborators narrate Stevens’ life and existential anxieties through a lens that, if it isn’t always clear, is always insightful. On the other side, ?love and The Roots crew create a slow grooving background that mirrors the monotony of Redford’s life without losing any of the band’s trademark musical muscle. “Sleep” might be the bleakest song of the year as Redford dies, but the closing four part movement shows a warm side as he dreams, too. A hip-hop stand out.
4. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It and See
2009’s Humbug existed seemingly just to push away fans who wanted to hear “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” or “Fluorescent Adolescent” rereleased every few years. Suck It and See isn’t quite as experimental as its predecessor, and blends Arctic Monkeys’ various elements into a surprisingly solid and enjoyable indie pop/rock album. The first half has rockier songs such as “Brick by Brick”, “All My Own Stunts”, and the top-notch “Library Pictures”, while the album’s second half is a prettier, poppier affair with “Reckless Serenade” and “Love Is a Laserquest”. If Humbug felt like forced maturity, Suck It and See is a more comfortable, delightful surprise success.
3. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
Debut album Lungs proved one thing above all else: Damn does Florence Welch have a voice. Ceremonials proves above all else one thing: Hot damn does Florence Welch have a voice. Ceremonials stands a full head taller over the band’s debut; the vocals try harder, the arrangements are more complicated, and the songwriting is tighter. If Ceremonials is a bit more singular, then it just means that it doesn’t misfire where Lungs did. Welch and company enjoy the dark and the romantic, and invite you to do the same. And with the power behind standouts like “Never Let Me Go”, “Shake It Out”, and “No Light, No Light”, it’s one hell of an invitation.
2. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Bent, disjointed, and weird, Strange Mercy is one of those records that lends itself to rediscovery upon repeated listens. Some things are apparent: the infectiously dirty riff to “Chloe in the Afternoon”, the demented energy of “Northern Lights”, and the immediacy of single “Cruel”, but other things reveal themselves with time. The beauty of the title track, “Surgeon”‘s many layers, or the complete lack of a bum track only appear if you give them time. St. Vincent operates mostly out of a standard rock band set-up on Strange Mercy, but uses the set to come up with her most original tunes to date. The songs change and shift, but the quality stays high throughout.
1. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
I don’t get why I didn’t see this on more year-end lists. I haven’t meant anyone who has heard this album that didn’t love it immediately. Stone Rollin’ succeeds at doing what every retro-leaning album dreams of doing: using sounds from the past without rehashing them. Saadiq uses 70’s soul as a backdrop to craft ten knockout modern songs; while the production is nothing but vintage, it’s hard to imagine these songs actually being written then. Saadiq has an edge on Stone Rollin’ that’s completely temporary, and an ear for blending the best of the then and now. Whether it’s the pop of “Radio”, “Good Man”‘s traditional R&B bounce, or the sensual blues of the title track, Stone Rollin’ stands as a modern soul class.