music / Columns

The Album Of The Year, Every Week: 2010

November 23, 2015 | Posted by David Hayter

Our weekly trek through time has reach 2010; the start of a new decade and the year I started writing for 411. More importantly it was a monumental year for music that saw some of the new millennium’s most essential and most divisive releases. But before we get to any of that good stuff, it’s time we got the newcomers up to speed.

In this column I (David Hayter) am going back through time to pick my favorite albums from 2015 right the way through to 1960. I invite you to play along in the comment section, but remember this is all about discovering what music truly matters to you, the individual. Now that time has moved on and the creative moment has passed, ask yourself: which records really stick with you and why?

If you want to catch up on the previous columns click the links below, otherwise, let’s dive into 2010.

2014201320122011

Welcome To 2010

2011 made for a difficult column. There was no shortage of good music, but nothing that felt either transcendent culturally or essential personally. 2010 is the polar opposite: a year of seismic releases that had a huge impact on me (as a music fan and writer) and on the entire industry. From Scandi-Pop superstar Robyn laying down her own magnum opus to Vampire Weekend brushing off their preppy aesthetic and proving themselves artistic heavyweights, 2010 was the year when the disparate artistic trends of the 2000s finally went super nova.

There’s not time to be wasted, so let’s revisit both my Top 10 list and the critic’s choice:

My List (Published Dec 2010)

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West
2. This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem
3. Queen Of Denmark by John Grant
4. Body Talk by Robyn
5. Contra by Vampire Weekend
6. CYMK/Klavierwerke by James Blake
7. Crysal Castles by Crystal Castles
8. One Life Stand by Hot Chip
9. Love Remains by How To Dress Well
10. Age Of Adz by Sufjan Stevens

The Critic’s Choice (via Metacritic)

1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West
2. The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monae
3. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson
4. Sir Lucious Left Foot by Big Boi
5. Black Tambourine by Black Tambourine
6. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire
7. Body Talk by Robyn
8. This Is Still It by The Method Actors
9. How I Got Over by The Roots
10. Halcyon Digest by Deerhunter

There is simply too much to mention at any great length (but we can give some quick shout outs). How could I have overlooked Janelle Monae back in 2010? With 20 spots between us how on earth did (then) career-defining works by Joanna Newson, The National, Ariel Pink and Caribou not get the slightest mention in either list?

Alas, unlike in previous weeks, I will not be discussing those who just missed out on recognition. Instead, I will be focusing on three albums that I find almost impossible to separate and we start with the work of world’s most polarizing egomaniac:

 

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West

What is there to say about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that hasn’t already been said? The album has been loved, lauded and hated by millions. So rather than revisiting maximalism or discussing Kanye’s exorbitant cathedral to excess and unrestrained artistic ambition, let’s talk about what MBDTF continues to mean to me.

From the moment Nicki Minaj’s ridiculous English accent introduces us to Kanye’s “Dark Fantasy” I am immediately transported to a very specific headspace; a place where sonic horizons were being stretched beyond recognition and everyone wanted to discuss and dissect new music. It’s hard to imagine it today (when apathy and cynicism are the norm), but back in 2010 people were chomping at the bit to listen to and debate new albums.

The preposterous 35-minute movie that introduced the world to “Runaway” gave me chills and set off a chain reaction of vehement hot takes. The sight of black clad ballet dancers flexing and stretching to those solemn icy keys continues to endure. Those pinched piano keys clang and hang despondently, sucking the oxygen out of the room as Kanye forged his monument to resplendent bad taste. He plucked at heartstrings with conventional instrumentation and brutally mutilate his own vocals suggesting some grueling subconscious torture – and what did he chose to say atop such a bruisingly angelic composition? “I sent a bitch a picture of my dick/I don’t know what it is with females/But I’m not too good at this shit”.

Cringe, laugh out loud, sing along or sit back in awe, the reaction hardly matters, for one impassioned moment it felt like the entire world had its collective eye on one artist and one album. When was the last time that truly happened? Sure nostalgic comebacks have drawn the media’s glare, but this was an unashamedly modern artist putting forward his most advent-garde album to date and setting the Internet aflame.

Perhaps it was perfect timing: the intersection of an imploding ego with a creative epiphany creating an ideal scenario – a firestorm of eyeballs and opinion. I could talk about the marvelous production, the beats that really bang, Nikki Minaj’s “Monster” verse, the incredible ambition and humanity of a track like “Blame Game”, but what’s the point? The arguments have been hashed and rehashed.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a reminder of the galvanizing force of art itself. I can sit back and bump these 13 tracks with a smile on my face, reminiscing about a time when friends would crowd around a pub table to tell me exactly why Kanye was a genius (or an idiot) – not because of who he married or what he said, but as a reaction to the music he produced.

Never settle, never relent, that is MBDTF’s enduring message; Kanye laid down a nightmarish gauntlet questioning what a hip hop album could be. No longer would any ask “what are the restraints of rap music”. The question became what could possibly restrain the burgeoning creativity of artists who refuses to accept or adhere to convention?

It’s fitting to reflect on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the year that To Pimp A Butterfly was released – one artist obliterated the notion of what a mainstream rap record could seek to achieve, the other demolished any notion of what a pop star should or shouldn’t seek to say. Both albums fundamental altered the direction of travel for an entire genre, transforming the expectations by which all other releases would be judged.

 

This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem

This Is Happening is flawed. It’s indulgent and too knowing (well duh, it’s LCD Soundsystem), but I could not care in the slightest. This was a big first for me. The first time a group/artist that I cared deeply about called it quits. Unlike seemingly every other British male under the age of 30, I never quite bought into the romantic mysticism surrounding The Libertines. The music might have been blistering, but when they fittingly disintegrated I never felt that ache. When James Murphy called it a day, at the absolute peak of his powers, I felt the pangs – I shared that unmistakable emptiness that thousands of Pete & Carl fans used to wear on their faces.

In this context, This Is Happening is a death mask; an album that brought me so much joy, but now lingers in my consciousness like a specter. Like finishing a great TV series or novel, in the moment, I wanted it to continue so desperately. It’s strange knowing that a tangible mass; a feeling, a space and allotment of time has vanished from my life forever, and yet, I’m glad. There was no decline. No disappointment; only great memories and a weird longing for something that is (hopefully) never coming back.

Like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, LCD Soundsystem’s swansong comes laced with so much emotional baggage that it’s hard to sit back and evaluate the music on its own terms. There’s a bitterness and a sense of middle-aged deflation that runs throughout LCD’s entire oeuvre and, on their final album, that weary weight overwhelms. The lights come up, the music stops and James Murphy offers a disaffected shrug, but if you look closely, he has the most heartfelt tear in his eye.

This band spent so long establishing that they are not special (attempting to convince the world that they were bereft of original ideas and sentiments) that they became a cypher for everyone who was too late to the party and too switched on to truly lose themselves.

The result was a collection of deeply romantic songs that sought the strangest of connections. The glimmer of recognition between two isolated drunk souls who have, however briefly, found some common ground – a soul mate for the evening, or perhaps just for an hour. “Home” is a magnificent eulogy for a band built for the dancefloors, but constructed in bedrooms.

Their final farewell is a spluttering, somber, drunken one – This Is Happening is the steady shoulder that you sling your slovenly arm across as you’re carried home. You’re too far-gone (and probably too young) to take in what LCD are whispering in your ear, but they are going to keep talking anyway. Like the truest of friends they hide their darkest home truths behind irony (“You Wanted A Hit”), but as the night grows long they begin to seep out, culminating in stunning selection of parting shots:

“You might forget, forget the sound of our voice/but you should not forget, no don’t forget, the things that we laughed about”

“No one ever knows what they’re talking about…no one opens up when you scream and shout/So it’s time to make a couple things clear/You’re afraid of what you need/Yeah, you’re afraid of what you need/You’re surrounded/It won’t get any better.”

Real flesh and blood experience is paramount – despite their intellectualized precision, this is James Murphy’s final and most sincere message. LCD Soundsystem don’t want to be mourned, but they do desire wet cheeks and broad smiles. The biggest tribute I can pay LCD Soundsystem is that their final album brings a tear to my eye, not because I care that a too-smart-by-half NYC band has broken up, but because their resplendent, sorrowful music makes me want to grab my best friends, hit the town, get drunk, and stagger home exchanging a decade worth of memories and a laundry list of as-yet-unresolved insecurities.

 

Queen Of Denmark by John Grant

John Grant was going it alone in 2010. Fresh from fronting The Czars and recovering from a black hole of drugs, booze, dead end jobs and nihilistic cynicism, Grant was ready to return to music and unleash his spleen. That would be inspiration enough for most artists, but this sardonic songwriter was also coming to terms with his homosexuality and the internal and external chaos that resulted from his announcement. Queen Of Denmark is therefore less an album and more of an assault. Grant has everyone and everything in his sights, most notably his own self and self-esteem.

In the wrong hands QoD could be leaden or maudlin, but Grant sees the humor in the deepest depression. As such, he spends most of the album dismissing the ass holes and putting down the puritanically righteous atop a gorgeously goofy selection of Midlake compositions (they happen to be Czars super fans). Grant’s brilliance lies is his ability to inhabit the space between extremes: he’s dour and deeply theatrical, he’s moribund and flippant, he’s hilarious and heartbreaking – but he is never any one extreme in isolation.

The stand out title track and album closer, “Queen Of Denmark”, masters this dark art of irony-laced severity. Few tracks are more moving or closer to the bone in their brutality, but every tear stained plead is hidden behind a big belly laugh. The end result is a track that sees the star slump over his piano pleading “I’ve had it all the way up to my hairline, which keeps receding like myself confidence” one second, and kidding: “I hope you know that all I want from you is sex/To be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear” the next. The track swells to a cathartic crescendo of pent up frustration at those who seek to impose their norms on others. Fittingly, it’s the darkest and funniest track on the entire LP.

Elsewhere there are plenty of beautiful moments (“Marz”, “Signourney Weaver”, “It’s Easier”) blending Grant’s baritone with Midlake’s McCartney like whimsy, but, at the end of the day, it’s the humor that wins out. “Silver Platter Club” is a largely irrational, but bloody glorious. Grant lashes out at parental expectations, the who-you-know culture and all physical/societal advantages. The track is an absolutely riot, plinking and plonking along as Grant reads his detractors the riot act while subtly poking fun at his own failing.

“JC Hates Faggots” takes the sardonic bitterness to new heights. Grant unleashes his most savage onslaught (“Can’t believe that I considered taking my own life/because I believed the lies about me were the truth”) only to puncture the tension with a chorus that highlights the ridiculous nature of the entire situation: “Jesus he hates fruit loops son, we told you that when you were young/pretty much everything you want him too, like sitcoms, pedophiles and kangeroos”.

In his darkest hour Grant learnt a lesson that would elevate his art to new heights: no one likes to be lectured. So when you’re enveloped in misery, inject a little levity. Queen Of Denmark is an ode to inner turmoil that bitterly laughs away the ache.


It’s becoming a tradition: I blather on about albums for so long that we have to fly through the tracks. Sorry. Here’s my original Top 10 tracks of 2010 list:

My List (Published Jan 2011)

1. “Home” by LCD Soundsystem
2. “Queen Of Denmark” by John Grant
3. “Runaway” by Kanye West
4. “CMYK” by James Blake
5. “Impossible Soul” by Sufjan Stevens
6. “The Battle Of Hampton Roads” by Titus Andronicus
7. “Easy” by Joanna Newsom
8. “Spanish Sahara” by Foals
9. “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem
10. “Hang With Me” by Robyn

2010 was a great year for tracks, looking back over my top 100 “Sprawl II” by Arcade Fire, “Odessa” by Caribou, “Conversation 16” by The National, “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)” by Alicia Keys, “Because The Night” by Springsteen, “Giving Up The Gun” by Vampire Weekend and a host of others could easily have slipped into my top 10.

Okay, so truth be told “Home” by LCD Soundsystem is still my no.1. But rather than write about the same song twice, we’re going to mix things up and spread the love.

“CYMK” by James Blake

Yep, we are back on the streets of LDN, returning to the EP that put James Blake’s name on all the right lips. “CYMK” isn’t a banger, the term doesn’t feel appropriate; sure the track lit up London’s club scene and it is still the highlight of each and every James Blake live show, but this hypnotic onslaught is too slippery and illusive to truly bang.

Instead, the trippy Kelis sample, the sub-aquatic vocal distortion and that insistent siren call lock the listener tightly in place. Transfixed by the beat, the subliminal mind fuck can begin and “CYMK”, which starts so sparsely, swells into a labyrinthine jumble of effects. When Blake has finally finished mining the vortex he pulls away the safety net of repetition and leaves the listener in a hauntingly garbled echo chamber. It’s unnerving finale that almost sounds like laughter, as if Blake’s sonic pyrotechnics have gained sentience and are content to mock the human beings they hold in sway.

Today “CYMK” is a reminder of a talent we lost and may never see again. Blake wisely embraced the singer-songwriter direction (winning a Mercury Music Prize in the process) – here’s to hoping he one day returns to the dance floor – but for now, “CYMK” is a pang of memory, telling us just how good we could have had it.



Well we still have a very long way to go, but we’re getting there (and don’t worry, I will speed up to make up for the editions I missed the last two weeks). But remember to share your favourite tracks from 2010 below the line.