The Five Best Albums of 2010
With the crepuscule of the decade approaching, Daily Review will cast its eye back across the years prior.
Each month we’ll look at some of the best albums released each year, starting with 2010.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire’s lead singer, songwriter and band leader Win Butler always seems like he has a lot to say. It’s just unfortunate that more recently (on 2017’s deplorable Everything Now) he seems to have run out of interesting things to talk about.
Up until then Arcade Fire had arguably the strongest and most unimpeachable canon in contemporary rock. Four consecutive albums of increasing scale and ambition, with two of them in particular hailed immediately on release as modern masterpieces: their 2004 debut Funeral and 2010’s The Suburbs.
On The Suburbs, Butler makes his most convincing and fascinating commentary on modern life. It’s an hour-plus meandering drive through the backlots and cookie cutter facades of the Middle America that Butler grew up in and had, in 2010, been left devastated by the GFC and years of American involvement in foreign wars.
Across the album, Butler looks at the soul crushing monotony of modern life (Modern Man), social cliques (The Suburbs) and the growing presence of technology that swallows old habits (We Used to Wait). But the tunes and melodies that back them up are a relentlessly beautiful as well.
Régine Chassagne’s sole contribution to the album, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), is also one of its best. It’s mix of a rumbling bass line on top of a thumping electo-beat with a glossy ’80s synth accompaniment was something the band would return to on their next album.
The Suburbs became a rare alternative rock album to be crowned Album of the Year at the Grammys, while simultaneously be critically adored and selling millions around the world. Along with the suburban tales of Funeral, it stands as one of the most impressive artistic statements by the century’s quintessential and self-conscious art rock band.
Key songs: The Suburbs, We Used to Wait, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Deerhunter have a unique ability to tap into the hidden recesses of memory, turning half-forgotten images into fuzzy audio triggers. Their breakout songs from 2007’s Cryptograms, Hazel St and Spring Hall Convent, set the template for their style: distorted guitars, propulsive jam sections and barely decipherable lyrics song to delicate and beautiful melodies.
With Halcyon Digest the band leans full into the Proustian elements of their songwriting, while ditching the distortion for crisp chords and occasional programmed drum beats. It’s an approach that works particularly well on the short blast of pop-rock Don’t Cry, Revival and Memory Boy.
While band leader Bradford Cox is often synonymous with everything Deerhunter does, the album’s biggest hit and one of their most recognisable in general, Desire Lines, was written and sung by Lockett Pundt. It hints at how when touring this album in Australia they rounded off the required time for a festival appearance with 15 solid minutes of feedback and white noise.
But behind the veneer of melancholic memory there’s a much grimmer tale to some of these songs. Helicopter was inspired by the story of Russian man who was a victim of a human trafficking organisation, the title a reference to the chosen form of execution – being dropping from above into the frozen wastelands of the Russian tundra.
Album closer He Would Have Laughed is dedicated to Cox’s friend, indie rocker Jay Reatard, who died just before the album was released. In fact, with no time to get the whole band together, Cox recorded the song solo. It’s a beautiful song that builds loop upon loop before it stops suddenly short.
On an album consumed with digging into the past, it’s a poignant reminder that we never know how much future lies ahead.
Key songs: Desire Lines, Helicopter, He Would Have Laughed
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Before Kanye was turning up at the White House with a MAGA hat and hugging Donald Trump; before he married a reality TV star; before he seemed like he was slipping into becoming a full-blown self parody of an out of touch and unstable music superstar, Kanye was living in rarefied air.
Back in 2010, the conversation around Kanye West was mainly about his music rather than tabloid fodder. Mind you, the year before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out he infamously took to the stage at the VMA’s to interrupt Taylor Swift, but his output was so strong that he was almost immediately forgiven by many.
His records were outrageously successful and universally adored; as a producer, writer and performer he was pushing the boundaries of popular music in places where few had before. His opening trilogy of records used classic RnB samples with modern rap pizzazz before 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak saw him make an ambitious pitch to be a pop singer.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the culmination of everything Kanye had tried before. It’s outrageously ambitious, incredibly catchy and often stunning with its virtuoso production flourishes. A roll-call of some of music’s biggest names pop by to add verses and melodies: Rihanna, John Legend, Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj among them.
It wasn’t just with the music that West was pushing the boundaries. He released a 35 minute accompanying clip for Runaway, which he directed himself.
Kanye has put out some killer tunes over the intervening years, but never again has he managed to bring his vision of modern pop music together in such a cohesive and entertaining way.
Key songs: POWER, Monster, Runaway
LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
When LCD Soundsystem played the final notes of New York I Love You to a packed out Madison Square Gardens back in 2011, it was supposed to be the end. The farewell tour on the back of This Is Happening was advertised as the final cap on the band’s short career before they sailed into the night.
The band did end up returning with 2017’s very good American Dream, but for a period of time there was a collective outpouring of admiration for a band that seemed to be set to go out at the peak of its powers. The sense of finality that accompanied the release of This Is Happening can’t be replicated, but it’s still a fine record.
For the years up to and surrounding This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem and its charismatic frontman James Murphy were hailed as ‘the coolest thing in music’. Murphy’s label DFA put out a series of releases that changed contemporary music, shifting the alternative music scene away from the garage-rock revival and towards electronic stylings.
Murphy’s background as a DJ and electronic music producer is fundamental to LCD Soundsystem’s sound. While other bands of the early parts of this decade were able to fuse together electronic music writing techniques with rock instrumentation, none of them were ever as successful at emulating the slow-burn build-ups and drops as Murphy and co.
One of the least successful songs on This Is Happening – Drunk Girls – owes itself to more rock traditions. Its clumsy take on high schoolers hitting on inebriated women perhaps hasn’t aged the best over the course of the decade. But so many of the other tracks boast stunning tracks that tip their hat to music past while still sounding like they’re from the future. The tribal beats of Dance Yrself Clean, Bowie in Berlin-style rocker All I Want and the kraut-rock flourishes of You Wanted a Hit are a few of the standouts.
Key songs: Dance Yrself Clean (sic), All I Want, You Wanted a Hit
The National – High Violet
The National spent the first decade of the century slowly building up their fanbase with a succession of solid releases, culminating with 2007’s Boxer which made several publications best of lists for the year, and then later for the whole decade.
But it was High Violet that turned the band from critical darling into genuine rock stars who now sell out arenas around the world, headline festivals and win Grammys.
The band’s detractors often state that all of their songs sound exactly the same. There’s some logic to this critique. They’re not the most sonically experimental of groups, with most of their songs set on a template of mid-tempo beats, few abrupt chord changes, relatively standard rock instrumentation with no virtuoso solos, and obtuse lyrics sung by Matt Berninger in a gruff growl.
But to focus only on what the band keeps consistent through their songs is to ignore the patient and precise fluctuations that are intrinsic to it. The National’s music is as much about mood, place and emotion as anything.
The production of twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner (the band is rounded off by more brothers, Bryan and Scott Devendorf) is all about minimalism. The sparse melodies and delicate touches of guitar and piano are made so much more powerful by their loneliness in the mix.
It also belies that intricate rhythm work which all the band members are involved in on Terrible Love and Bloodbuzz Ohio. It’s how the band can play one song over and over again for hours on repeat and still find new twists to it (as they did for a museum art installment playing Sorrow). It’s how the singalong on Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks turned itself into an unlikely live anthem. It’s part of what makes High Violet an endlessly endearing listen.
Key songs: Terrible Love, Sorrow, Bloodbuzz Ohio
Ariel Pink – Before Today
At eccentric mix of old-school rock, classic pop and curveball song-writing.
Key song: Round and Round
Beach House – Teen Dream
‘Dream pop’ was brought into the 2010s with the release of this remarkable album.
Key song: Zebra
The Black Keys – Brothers
The album that turned a guitar and drums blues rock duo into world-wide superstars.
Key song: Tighten Up
Bonobo – Black Sands
Jazz flourishes and relentlessly groovy beats.
Key song: Kong
Caribou – Swim
A swirling mix of pop melodies, psychedelia and electonica.
Key song: Odessa
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
With an immaculately produced and eclectic blend of experimental electronic production, jazz and hip-hop, FlyLo stakes a claim to be the best record spinner on the planet.
Key song: … And The World Laughs With You (Ft. Thom Yorke)
Four Tet – There Is Love In You
Ghostly samples and delicate melodies make this album as beautiful as it is dancey.
Key song: Angel Echoes
Grinderman – Grinderman 2
Nick Cave’s unbridled sexuality, sensuality and lyrical sensibility made this a side-project that packs a punch.
Key song: Palaces of Montezuma
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn’s cartoon confectionary collaboration masterpiece.
Key song: On Melancholy Hill
Laura Marling – I Speak Becuase I Can
Marling’s neu-folk songwriting talents have never felt quite as boundless, fresh or poignant.
Key song: Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)
Mark Ronson and the Business Intl – Record Collection
After Valerie and before Uptown Funk, Ronson delivered his first attempt at all new material – and the results are largely brilliant.
Key song: Somebody To Love Me (ft. Boy George)
Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers
While their contemporaries and collaborators James Blake and Jamie xx may get all the plaudits, Mount Kimbie are arguably the greatest exponents of the “post dub-step” movement.
Key song: Carbonated
MGMT – Congratulations
There was no second coming of Electric Feel, but there was a brilliant assortment of experimental pop music.
Key song: Flash Delirium
Pantha du Prince – Black Noise
German techno producer Hendrik Weber’s debut album under this moniker is lush, propulsive and invigorating.
Key song: Bohemian Forest
Robyn – Body Talk
Sweden’s enigmatic songstress emerged from a lengthy solo hiatus with a tour de force pop spectacle.
Key song: Dancing on My Own
Sia – We Are Born
Before she caught the international eye and began covering her face, Sia released her most complete album.
Key song: You’ve Changed
Sleigh Bells – Treats
They set up stage with a wall of amplifiers, and then dazzle with some old-school pop melodies somewhere amid the cacophony.
Key song: Rill Rill
Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz
Stevens at his most edgy and experimental – it doesn’t all work, but when it comes together its magic.
Key song: Age of Adz
Tame Impala – Innerspeaker
The debut album from Kevin Parker’s psych-rock project introduced the world to Australia’s most singular talent of the decade.
Key song: Solitude is Bliss
Vampire Weekend – Contra
The preppy darlings of the American alt-rock indie scene were struggling to find their voice; but even then remain fascinating.
Key song: White Sky