Robert J. Howell probably spent more on his turntable than you did on food for the last year. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Methodist University and co-wrote a book about the problem of explaining consciousness. Dollars to donuts, he’s smarter than you are. Here are his Top Albums of 2010:
If some years I have to struggle to find ten albums that deserve being on a “top” list, 2010 poses the opposite problem. It was an exceedingly strong year, with a diverse set of releases from well-established bands as well as a few outstanding newcomers.
1. Beach House, Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
The top pick was, for me, the easiest. Baltimore’s Beach House blew me away in 2004 with their self-titled debut, but on their third album they moved from an endearing indie act to a world class band. Victoria Legrand’s haunting voice winds around the guitar work of Alex Scally with melodies that evolve in unexpected directions, raising the duo above the lovely simplicity suggested by their “dream pop” rubric.
2. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Before Today (4AD)
There is no pinning down this album except to say that it feels like the result of an influence blender that succeeds in turning the familiar into something brand new. There’s a late 70s/early80s vibe here, but APHG is not about nostaligia. The moment you think you’re onto them, on they go.
3. Tame Impala, Innerspeaker (Modular)
Perth seems like an unlikely source for this rich, guitar driven semi-psychadelia. It’s like what one hopes Lennon would have done if he had enjoyed a life as long as Bowie’s.
4. Surfer Blood, Astro Coast (Kanine)
If Perth is an unlikely, source for psychadelia, West Palm Beach is an unlikely source for almost anything of value. This is probably the catchiest album of the year, and Surfer Blood is the most exciting new band of the year. There’s a whiff of Vampire Weekend here, but with more rock and less prep.
5. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge)
The Arcade Fire will be up for album of the year at The Grammy’s, along with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but it’s difficult to see how that happened. The Suburbs is a concept album without a single in sight. This seems to be a band people love to hate, and the mainstream attention won’t help matters. But ignore the hype, and give The Suburbs some serious time. The songwriting on this album matches up with some of the best going.
6. Janelle Monae, Archandroid (Bad Boy/Wandaland Arts Society)
Excellent singers are like really beautiful people—they have so much given to them that they often don’t make the effort to do anything interesting. Monae is one of the exceptions. There are a gazillion influences here, from James Brown to Roberta Flack checkpoints, but the album feels fresh, and it feels great!
7. Belle and Sebastian, Write About Love (Matador)
It’s tempting to ignore a band that has been around for this long, and yes, they are a bit precious, and yes, there is a duet here with Norah Jones. But songs this good cannot be ignored. It’s hard to wrap your head around Paul Simon being in The Smiths, but this album might give you a clue.
8. Tallest Man on Earth, The Wild Hunt (Dead Oceans)
I don’t know how a Swede can channel Bob Dylan, but Kristian Matsson manages to do it. The influence is clear but the songs hold their own. “The King of Spain” is perhaps the best track of the year.
9. Morning Benders, Big Echo (Rough Trade)
In a decent world The Morning Benders would be all over the radio. Their sound is slick and accessible, and they write songs that sound like singles. I might have worried that they would get a little thin, but Big Echo keeps finding itself in my player.
10. The Walkmen, Lisbon (Fat Possum)
Too many people stopped listening to The Walkmen after The Rat. It’s a good song, but there’s a lot more to this band. They manage to sound sloppy while remaining within the lines, and when everything comes together for the crescendo they can propel the listener into the heavens.
Painfully close calls: Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest; LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening; Male Bonding, Nothing Hurts; Marnie Stern, s/t ;The National, High Violet; No Age, Everything In Between; School of Seven Bells, Disconnect from Desire;Wild Nothing, Gemini