19.) Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
This album completely caught me out of the blue. I’ll be the first to admit that I steer more towards indie rock than rap and R&B. But when I started hearing good things about this record, I slapped it on my iPod shuffle and headed to Alabama. Little did I know that a classical overture would introduce such an epic record. This is not one simple genre, this is every single genre bundled into a gigantic concept record about the love between humans and machines with folk rock, swinging R&B and sick, Prince-era electric guitar solos incorporated all the way through. Janelle Monae came out swinging with her debut album, and I can jump into this jam every time with something new to absorb. It only adds to the fun that she is a homegrown treat of ATL. I mentioned earlier catching an of Montreal/Janelle Monae show late at Variety Playhouse this year, and the encore featured both acts in an incredible Michael Jackson medley. Monae stole the show belting out the chorus to “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing).” This is a great example of an album that took me out of my comfort zone and surprised me, an occasion I wish for every year.
Favorite moment: “Oh Maker.” Janelle Monae treats the love between the engineer of the android and the product of playing God in the theme of an old folk song, with just the right pinch of soul.
18.) Mountain Man - Made the Harbor
I’ve been a student at Georgia State University since January ’09, but it wasn’t until this year that I gave Album 88.5 a real chance as my radio station of choice. One day through the static came Mountain Man’s “How’m I Doin’,” and I was intrigued immediately. Thank you, world, for letting me tune in at this particular time of day, because I was on to something I never expected to discover. Mountain Man comprises of four lovely female voices that join together to create heavenly melodies that were long lost up in the mountains. Sometimes they use a spare acoustic guitar, and sometimes all you hear are otherworldly a cappella harmonies. Either way, they will take you to another completely different place than the other music releases of 2010. Made the Harbor is the equivalent of a time machine this year, dragging the listener passively up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. A great discovery I most likely would have missed out on had it not been for local radio.
Favorite moment: The four-part harmony build-up of “Honeybee.” What a way to coast through life beyond the daily troubles we all face. Loveliness incarnate.
17.) Matthew Dear - Black City
So I am by no means a huge electronic music fan, but Matthew Dear’s Black City grabbed me steadily into a world I hardly recognize. Talk about an album that is somehow dark and soulful at the same time throughout every changing moment. Cold weather goes well together with these bubbling synthesizers; many a day I’ve waited on and on for MARTA worrying about showing up to work late. It’s hard to worry too much, though, when this Bowie soundalike sways his sleazy way through your headphones. Another album that snuck up on me in the last half of the year. The title track “Little People (Black City)” can keep my attention itself for its duration, but opener “Honey” also keeps the slow boil of darkness moving along. And bonus track “Innh Dahh” brings you back down to Earth slowly in the vein of the Liars.
Favorite moment: “Slowdance.” It’s hard to describe this plodding slow jam, but if I could dance, this would be the one to show off the skills. It struts by sexily over breathing vocals and sharp keyboards.
16.) Spoon - Transference
Ah, Spoon. You can always be trusted to put out a solid album every time. I can count on tight rhythms and studio trickery. Britt Daniel’s howl attacked a spurned lover on “Written in Reverse” and softly cooed to another honey’s heart in “Goodbye Laura.” The bass and drums combo is confident here as always, keeping “The Mystery Zone” and “Nobody Gets Me But You” rolling along over tight grooves. Slanted guitar distortion gets plenty room to shine as well, especially during the descending bridge of “I Saw the Light.” While some may see another release that doesn’t really stand out, I see another solid step in Spoon’s discography. Way to put the rhythm in rhythm and blues, guys.
Favorite moment: When that echoing warble of synthesizers that floats over shakers and simple bass on “Who Makes Your Money” finally drops out, and we’re left with palm-muted guitars grinding together into a beautiful sort of tension before the electronics come back to bring us home.
15.) The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt
My favorite artist of all time is Bob Dylan. I like weird sounding electronics and distorted guitars like the rest of you, but at the end of the day Dylan’s simple voice and guitar combo is all I need. So it’s no surprise that the latest Dylan troubadour climbed onto the list. What does surprise me is the craft that went into this batch of songs and that timeless rustic quality in the singer’s voice. “The Wild Hunt,” “You’re Going Back,” “Love Is All”: what can I say, these are just really good catchy sing-alongs. The acoustics sound beautiful yet simple, and this guy can strum along in a rush or gently finger-pick with the best of ‘em. “King of Spain” builds over an undeniable rush of emotions, and closer “Kids on the Run” switches to piano without feeling forced or corny. Most of all, I adore The Wild Hunt for that crisp soulful voice that floats over guitar chords and into my head.
Favorite moment: “I said, ‘Driver, please don’t go that fucking way!’” - “You’re Going Back”
14.) Vampire Weekend - Contra
January would have passed by very slowly without Contra in my earbuds. A relentlessly catchy record to bounce through on a fresh day on your way to work or school while the sun comes up and heats up the world. I still get excited and start bobbing when I hear “Holiday” come on over some car commercial. They got sued over that portrait on the cover, but Vampire Weekend took to the charts and the critics with their sophomore release and a year later I’m still hooked on Contra. Fun pop songs like “Cousins” and “White Sky” may get you grinning like a happy fool, but the real moments are tucked in acoustic closer “I Think Yr A Contra” and reggae-M.I.A. lovechild “Diplomat’s Son.”
Favorite moment: The skittering guitar and brilliant vocals during the bridge of “Holiday.” I could listen to just the bridge on repeat for a good while. “She never seen the word ‘bombs’ blown up to 96-point Futura.” Where else can you find such a perfect line like that?
13.) Menomena - Mines
Last time Menomena came out with an album, it kicked things off with “Muscle N’ Flo,” a thudding blowout of massive drums and amazing organ that soundtracked every time I walked anywhere in 2007. Mines starts things off more slowly over a simple beat, gentle strumming guitar and sleigh bells. Melancholy settles in all over this release; Menomena are bummed out, no doubt. But while they feel a little let down in life and love, their music has only grown more mature and complete over the past three years. These feel like songs more than jams created on a computer, and the effect gives the album a classic wholeness that holds everything together. The vocals plead and moan, drums crash all over the place like the ghost of Bonham, and twinkling pianos sneak into every corner of every song. So maybe things aren’t so different from Friend and Foe.
Favorite moment: The slow buildup of “Dirty Cartoons” into a galactic slow jam over thick bass and acoustic guitar. Special points awarded to that small horn fill at the 1:51 mark, perfectly floating in before the fallout of the chorus.
12.) Best Coast - Crazy For You
Can we just agree that summer would have completely sucked without this album? I can’t even imagine those hot sunny days without the simple beach pop of Best Coast. Not too much going on in the lyrics department with this one, but the message is simple: singer Bethany Cosentino is crazy for this boy and wants him madly. She also likes weed and her cat a lot. That’s all she needs to say here, and she let’s the surf-rock pop take care of the rest. In the lazy days of summer, we don’t need anything more than that. Also: this is a great workout record. I ran to it every day of June, and the sun-drenched lyrics pushed me for miles. Just don’t bank on a winter record.
Favorite moment: The slow crush of Cosentino’s voice singing “I want you so bad” over and over on, fittingly, “I Want You.” And my biggest smile of the year coincides with short jam “Happy.”
11.) Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
While I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next states project (Kansas? Iowa?), Sufjan had a different idea in mind. Or, as to be expected from the one-man symphony, way too many ideas. He took the focus off of the 50 states and instead aimed his lyrics at himself. Introspection pays off on The Age of Adz, melding with a new electronic sound that gurgles and builds. The songwriting is beautiful and inventive, and Sufjan’s lyrics paint a new picture of the singer’s feelings and angst. The gentle guitars of “Futile Devices” are the red herring before the drum machines and synths of “Too Much.” Sufjan shoots for the stars and follows through on this new album. Just the pleasant whistling on “All For Myself” are enough to tell me that this one was worth the wait.
Favorite moment: All 25 flawless minutes of “Impossible Soul.” It took me forever to get past this song and into the rest of the album, and while I enjoy the rest, I’m really just waiting for this track to arrive every time. A full side of vinyl on its own, “Impossible Soul” gets me grinning giddily just thinking about it: “Boy, we could do much more together, it’s not so impossible!”
10.) Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye, you were not supposed to turn up here. While I’ve always tried to dig his albums and normally find one favorite jam per album that I blast for about three weeks and then forget about, I’m not obsessed with Kanye and normally I’m joining my friends in blasting the egomaniac. So while the critics praised and my friends pounced on his latest album, I was honestly plugging away with my normal tunes with no concern. Then I heard “Runaway.” Epic nine minute piano ballad toasting douche bags and featuring a wordless Auto Tune solo? Okay, strangely moving and catchy. Next came “Monster.” Nice, that chick tore up her verse! Then “Dark Fantasy.” These beats cruise, and could that chorus be more majestic? Then “All of the Lights.” And now I’m trying to get my friends to get into Kanye while they laugh at me and look away, not even bothering to feign interest. You know, Kanye and Sufjan have a lot in common. They both did the unexpected, they both honed in on their emotions, and they both aimed for the epic. But you can bang your head up and down to Mr. West.
Favorite moment: The progression from soft Auto-Tuned Bon Iver to massive club banger jam in “Lost in the World.” Also, the downright epic 29-minute film soundtracking “Runaway,” especially when Ye climbs on top of that piano and sings his heart out.
9.) Sleigh Bells - Treats
Bubblegum pop? Metal? Hip-hop? People had a hard time pinning Sleigh Bells, but the best word for the job here is loud. This is one of the few albums I heard this year that just didn’t make sense through headphones; it almost hurt my ears to listen to Treats this way. Treats sounds best blasting through the speakers while speeding down the road. “Tell ‘Em” and “Crown on the Ground” barge their way around with deafening drums and screeching guitars. “A/B Machines” never gets out more than two lines, but mangled surf guitar and the cheerleader delivery are effective enough to obliterate the need for lyrics. The band even finds the time to slow things down and just chill out over a Funkadelic sample on “Rill Rill.” The cover art is cute, but it hides the fact that these cheerleaders are hardcore and ready to party. This debut sounds like nothing else this year, and here’s hoping the next release from Sleigh Bells sounds just as fun. I have got to see this band live. Maybe the best word is crunk here.
Favorite moment: That mind-numbingly loud first minute of “Tell ‘Em” and the even louder guitar solo halfway through.
-Landon Briggs, 12/31/10