Monthly Archives: December 2010

For Your Listening Pleasure: The Top 10 Albums of 2010

1.  Contra– Vampire Weekend

There wasn’t a more purely enjoyable album all year than Vampire Weekend’s incessantly catchy and unabashedly buoyant Contra.  Vampire Weekend dispelled any notions of a sophomore slump with this one.

2.  Cosmogramma- Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus continues to push boundaries that few others even realize exist.  If you want to hear the future of music now, do yourself a favor and listen to this.

3.  The Age of Adz– Sufjan Stevens

Five years removed from recording his last proper full-length album (the brilliant Illinois), Sufjan Stevens returns with his first foray into electronic music.  While Stevens’ sound has changed some between now and then, his usual quirkiness and affinity for unique musical arrangements is back and we’re all the better for it.

4.  Have One On Me- Joanna Newsom

Newsom doesn’t disappoint with her third full-length release, the meticulously crafted Have One On Me.  Coming in at two hours long and spanning three discs, this sprawling endeavor showcases Newsom’s ability to craft spellbinding, poetic yarns that pack more musical ideas into a single song than most artists have on an entire album.  Then again, most artists aren’t Joanna Newsom.

5.  Living With Yourself- Mark Mcguire

Unlike other albums from this year, Living With Yourself likely won’t blow you away upon first listen (or ever); it’s much too subtle for that.  Instead, Living With Yourself works slowly, filling you with a warmth that spreads gradually through your body until you are numb inside with raw, unbridled human emotion.

6.  Love King- The-Dream

The self-proclaimed “radio killa, R&B gorilla” returns with a set of his usual baby-inducing love lust songs written for the girls in his little black book and the guys who wish they could get their hands on it.

7.  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy– Kanye West

Not nearly deserving of all the positive praise it’s received I’d, nonetheless, be remiss if I didn’t at least recommend MBDTF for the impact it’s had in the music world this year and for Kanye’s fearlessness in taking chances (for better or worse) lyrically, stylistically, etc. on the album.  Love it or hate it (I’m somewhere in between), I think just about everyone can agree that this is an album you have to at least check out if you call yourself a fan of music in 2010.

8.  Before Today– Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

It’s tough to believe Before Today was released in 2010 but, indeed, it was.  Sounding more like a pastiche of sounds from bygone eras, Ariel Pink seamlessly mixes ‘60s psychedelia (“Bright Lit Blue Skies”), ‘70s goofball cheesiness (“Can’t Hear My Eyes”), and synthesizer-driven ‘80s goth rock (“Fright Night (Nevermore)”) to create something that certainly sounds ‘before today,’ but also freshly new.

9.  The ArchAndroid– Janelle Monáe

On her genre-sweeping debut, Janelle Monáe displays her musical chops, bouncing between funk, hip-hop, rock, folk, jazz, and classical elements between (and often within) songs.  Her fusion of all these disparate genres is effortless and it shows in the steady flowing nature of her not-to-be-missed debut.   

10.  Teen Dream– Beach House

Consider this fair warning:  It’s your own fault if you sleep on Beach House’s ethereal Teen Dream.  Consider this your consolation:  It’ll be here when you decide to wake up.

Your turn:  What did I miss?  What were your favorite albums from 2010?  Let me know!

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Mental Illness Meets Pop Genius

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz

Genre: Pop/Electronic

Release Date:  October 12, 2010

Sufjan Stevens, the man who brought us full-length albums chronicling the people, places, and events of Michigan and Illinois, is back with his latest—and perhaps, most ambitious—endeavor yet, the sprawling, The Age of Adz.  On this album, Stevens takes the focus off of the exploration of external entities and turns it inward towards the workings of the psyche.

Just whose psyche is unclear.

The Age of Adz is a reference to deceased Louisiana artist Royal Robertson (his artwork appears on the album cover and in the liner notes), a paranoid schizophrenic and self-proclaimed prophet whose wife left him for another man after 19 years of marriage.  The album may well be the biographical account of Robertson’s delusional and lovelorn life or Robertson’s story could simply serve as the vehicle through which Stevens tells his own demented and deranged tale of loves’ unraveling.  This is not entirely clear, though Stevens does periodically refer to himself in the third person (if only, perhaps, to lend the album a more personal touch).

This album has all the characteristics of the man it makes reference to.  From hallucinogenic call and response, dramatic and frightening shifts in emotion, and delusional ramblings, the contents of this album—like Robertson—fit all the necessary criteria for the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (with traces of manic depression to boot).

In addition to his battles with mental illness, the album’s narrator must also come to terms with his internal feelings towards the dissolution of his relationship (which appears to be self-inflicted).  Over the course of the album, the narrator runs the gamut of human emotion—from suicidally depressed to exuberantly optimistic and everything in between—while continuously cycling through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.

Despite all the pain, confusion, selfishness, anger, hysteria, and paranoia exhibited by the narrator, there is also a child-like innocence underlying all of the dark thoughts and emotions that are bubbling at the surface.  During calmer moments, the narrator wistfully reflects on happier times with his ex-lover, expressing the deep love he still carries for her and the genuine remorse he feels for the pain he’s caused.  It’s at moments like these that we get a glimpse of just how vulnerable, fragile, and human the narrator truly is.  In an instant, we excuse his past missteps and callousness and use his mental illness as license for his repugnant behavior.

The actual music itself has all the typical idiosyncrasies expected of a proper  Sufjan Stevens recording.  Electronic blips and bleeps are seamlessly meshed with traditional instruments and—like the narrator’s mood—are constantly shifting in tone and sound.  Stevens does a masterful job of using these instruments to indicate the mood of any given moment.  During moments of anger, Stevens is prone to use a mixture of ominous sounding flutes, strings, drums, and electronic blips to further convey the narrator’s inner turmoil.  Conversely, during times of reflection, Stevens is just as likely to stick to gentle acoustic guitar picking to emphasize the tranquility of the moment.

Perhaps the greatest instrument on display is Stevens’ vocal chords.  Far from having a traditionally beautiful singing voice, what Stevens lacks in natural singing ability he more than makes up for with his ability to emote a wide range of feelings.  Stevens uses his voice, like his other instruments, to effortlessly convey how the narrator feels from moment to moment.

All in all, The Age of Adz introduces us to a tremendously afflicted Stevens/Robertson wrestling with his inner demons.  It’s a messy affair (both psychologically as well as musically) to be sure, but what did you expect?  This is a Sufjan Stevens undertaking after all, isn’t it?  No one except Stevens could have concocted this beautiful mess.  So, instead of recommending he get a psych eval, we should all be so thankful he didn’t.

8 / 10

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The Playlist: The Must Hear Songs of 2010

If you listen to nothing else from this past year, listen to these 15 gems.*  Without further adieu, the Must Hear Songs of 2010…**

1. “White Sky“- Vampire Weekend

This infinitely catchy song showcasing the spastic yelps of Ezra Koenig will be in constant rotation on your iPod for months.

2. “Do the Astral Plane“- Flying Lotus

If you don’t find yourself bouncing along to this rapidly progressing, multi-layered track you may not have a pulse.

3. “Fright Night (Nevermore)“- Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

An ’80s style vibe infused with pseudo-spooky guitars, synths, and comically macabre lyrics like “I used to talk to demons with my Ouija board but… not anymore.”  What’s not to like?

4. “Yamaha“- The-Dream

The-Dream takes a page out of his idol’s book with this heavily-synthesized ode to a girl whose name he doesn’t know.  We’ll just call her “Yamaha” instead.

5. “All of the Lights“- Kanye West

This one hits like a Rocky punch and only lets up at the very end once you’re down for the count.

6. “Impossible Soul“- Sufjan Stevens

For the music lover who wants it all, this is your song.  At over 25 (yes, 25!) minutes long this track has everything—electronic funk, spacey atmospherics, auto-tune crooning, exuberant horns, and gentle acoustic guitar plucking.  All in a day’s—er song’s—work for the ever-ambitious Stevens.

7. “Good Intentions Paving Co.“- Joanna Newsom

Newsom weaves strings, horns, and her easily distinguishable and uniquely singular voice together to churn out a bluesy/folksy gem that will have you longing for more well after it’s over.

8. “Cubism Dream“- Local Natives

Easy flowing guitar, piano, and drums provide the perfect complement to lead singer, Taylor Rice’s, pitch-perfect and melodious voice.

9. “Rill Rill“- Sleigh Bells

There’s something uniquely endearing about this oddball pop gem that has quirky high school gossip/gibberish for lyrics.

10. “Your Love“- Nicki Minaj

This irresistibly catchy bit of ear candy samples Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” and gives it a reinvigorated hip-hop bounce fit for the 21st century.

11. “The Suburbs“- Arcade Fire

A brooding and reflective look back at youth, growing up, and the dissolution of innocence and childhood.  All interesting fodder for a band that’s never shied away from deep subject matter and the chance to provide social commentary.

12. “Faster“- Janelle Monáe

Buzzing along at a breakneck pace, “Faster” is a song that certainly lives up to its name.  Monáe puts on display her ability to swing with the best of them on this up-tempo track.

13. “Norway“- Beach House

Beach House channel their inner Fleetwood Mac and combine it with their dream-pop aesthetics to produce this little slice of heaven.

14. “You & Me“- Diamond Rings

Infectiously poppy tune that will have you believing rainbow-colored eyeliner is cool—if only for 3 and a half minutes.

15. “If You Want It“- TV Girl

Any song that samples Todd Rundgren’s classic “Hello It’s Me,”*** drops a nifty beat in the background, and has poignant and humorous lyrics about drunken hook-ups and the resulting awkwardness of the morning after gets an A+ in my book.

*Limit one song per artist/band.

**Songs listed in no particular order.

***Check out the getup Rundgren is sporting in this clip.  The Lady Gaga of his time?  I think so.

Check back soon for my “Best Albums of the Year” roundup.

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