Friday, January 14, 2011

Totally Unauthorized: 2010 Album of the Year Awards

Alright, so 2010 is now in the books, what a great year it was, yadda yadda yadda. The closing of a year means it's now time for my 2010 albums of the year segment.

Well, in all seriousness, it was a pretty great year for music. As always, the indie scene had tons of great stuff coming out. I guess with the diversity of everything that could be considered indie, that's pretty much the norm. Bands like Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Gorillaz, and Deerhunter had traffic stopping releases this year, but will it be enough for them to claim a coveted award here or will some young up and comer snatch it away?

Rap also had a pretty solid year. Nas and Damian Marley treated us with some reggae infused hip hop with Distant Relatives, and new personalities like Drake and Nicki Minaj got their first big shot on the major stage. But the rap year in 2010 will likely be known as the year of the comeback, as Eminem and Kanye West made big returns from slightly disappointing previous releases, and Big Boi made his emergence as a solo artist.

And in country music, it was also the year heralded duo Brooks & Dunn broke up. Also huge was a string of concerts by a certain country legend known as Garth Brooks, that took place toward the year's end.

But now, seriously this time, here are my picks...

Folk Album of the Year

The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

The indie folk scene is well known for producing great music. We've gotten such great artists as Bright Eyes, Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, and even the legendary Jeff Magnum. But this year none were able to top the Dylan-esque stylings of Kristian Matsson, better known as The Tallest Man on Earth. 

His guitar is crisp and clean, and much of his playing has a wonderful made-for-NPR type of sound. His vocals are a little rough, but in time you'll come to love them. But what really astounds is his lyrical content. 

The title track, which has been on heavy rotation on my IPod for months, delivers a poetic message that you can't be afraid of life or death and you just gotta take it as it comes. Kudos to you, Kristian.

Runner up: Phil Selway - Familial

Jazz Album of the Year
Brian Culbertson - XII

2010 was a solid year for jazz. Guitarist Pat Metheny, a legend in the field, released a great digitized jazz album with Orchestrion, Vijay Iyer showed off his piano virtuosity with Solo, while Paul Motian's Lost in a Dream and Brad Mendelau's Highway Rider also lit up audiences this year. 

But I'm going in a little bit of different direction with my pick. I love jazz, but I also love groove, and I think a lot of other people do too. Enter Brian Culbertson, a jazz pianist with some definitely funky stylings. 

His piano work is accessible but still respectable, and XII features jaw dropping guest appearances from Faith Evans, Brian McKnight, and Avant, among others.

Runner up: Pat Metheny - Orchestrion

Country Album of the Year

 Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song

It may be lonely at the top, but it's a bitch at the bottom. After cutting his teeth for the last four years (which included being dropped by his label, BMA, in 2006) it's safe to say things aren't a bitch for Johnson anymore. His double album, The Guitar Song, is easily one of the statements of the year.

In a time when the country music industry is brimming in music that is brimming with corporate manufactured sheen, Johnson delivers something that feels true and organic.

At times the line tends to blur between rock and country, as there is some great guitar playing to be heard here. And Johnson's deep, rugged voice spins a message that just won't let you go.

Runner up: The Secret Sisters - The Secret Sisters
Biggest Disappointment 
of 2010

M.I.A. - /\/\ /\ Y /\

Coming off the release of her stunning Kala album three years ago, 2010 was shaping up to be a defining year in the career of Maya Arupugilism. But the wheels started to fall off before the album even released.

Maya was caught up in ugly battles with the pres and had her credibility undermined, but had a chance to make up for it. But for the first time in her career Maya simply fell flat. The personality and creativity that made her first two albums stand out so much was nowhere to be seen here.

It all degenerated into loops of electronic garbles coupled with a blatant attempt to to appeal to the party/hip hop/club scene. After finally cracking the mainstream, it looks like Maya tried to cash in on it. Unfortunately, she missed the mark here.

Runner up: Vampire Weekend - Contra

Most Out There Album of 2010

Avey Tare - Down There

No surprises here. The mad genius who helped engineer Merriweather Post Pavillion returned in 2010 with his own solo LP, and it becomes very obvious where the main influence in Animal Collective lies. 

Tare has once again assembled what essentially is the soundtrack to an acid trip, but there are some departures from MPP's formula. Down There has a much murkier vibe, with an ever-present water theme providing a unique coloring to the album. 

Complete with twisted vocals, bizarre lyrical imagery, and beats that can only come from a mind like Tare's, it's harder to get much more out there this year than Down There.

Runner up: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

 Most Overrated Album

Big Boi - Sir Luscious Left Foot... Son of Chico Dusty

Critics and fans alike raved about the debut solo album from the other half of the dynamic Outkast duo. Virtually everyone I've heard from says this album is the second coming of Biggie or something, but you'll have to color me unimpressed. 

My main turn off is the super sleek pop sound presented on this record. It doesn't sound like anything currently being played on MTV, but it sounds like something that could be. I also found this record a bit over the top at times. And it's hard to deny that Big Boi's lyricism is nowhere near what it was during his Outkast heights.

Runner up: Vampire Weekend - Contra

 Best New Artist

Best Coast

I've got to admit I was on a Bethany Cosentio trip for quite awhile. Nevermind Katy Perry; if you've ever had a fantasy about the perfect indie chick, Cosentio is your dream girl.

She's the perfect combination of rocker/hipster/stoner all wrapped up into one babe. Oh yeah, and then there's also the music. With their debut Crazy for You, Best Coast presents a lo-fi brand of sunny California surf rock that sports a retro vibe.

It all floats by like a breezy summer day and its hard not to get caught up in Bethany's sugary melodies. I wish they all could be California girls...

Best Live Show

Paul McCartney at the Bridgestone 
Well, obviously. How is anyone supposed to outdo Hey Jude, Blackbird, Let it Be, Yesterday, Pepper's Theme, The End, and the list goes on. But it's all just more reasons why I can't deny that Mr. McCartney put on the best show I saw this year.

Paul brought his band to Nashville for the first time this summer and did his best to convince us that he's an "up and coming artist," but that's about the only thing he wasn't able to succeed at. Other highlights included his performance of Something as a tribute to George Harrison.

Toward the end, he even allowed a pair of fans up on the stage to get autographs and to rock out. It's hard to get much classier - or better - than Sir McCartney
Electronic Album of the Year

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles began carving out their niche two years ago with their self titled debut. It was big on electronic pyrotechnics and video game/arcade sounds, but here the Edinburgh duo opted for a slightly different approach.

Ethan Kath displayed a brilliance in composing dreamy soundscapes that I haven't seen in years; truly no one can quite arrange .midi files quite like this guy. And Alice Glass made major strides forward in being an anything goes vocalist with mind boggling assortments of different vocal effects from song to song.

Tracks like Intimate make it easy to get your rave on, Doe Deer will make you think you had a bad trip, but perhaps the most interesting experiment comes with the Sigur Ros sample on Year of Silence.

And even though the remixed version wasn't included on the album, the duo's collaboration with Robert Smith on We Are Not in Love captured headlines all over the musical world.

Runner up: Yeasayer - Odd Blood 

Rap Album of the Year

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The word for Kanye this year was rebound. 808s and Heartbreak, quite frankly, wasn't that great, and Kanye had taken several hits to his image after sloughing through numerous PR failures. 

But that all came to an end with his Good Fridays series and the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an effort that is being lauded by practically everyone everywhere. Some even argue that Kanye is redefining rap. 

But however you look at it, it's hard to deny the creativity and ingenuity displayed here. And it isn't just Kanye who lights it up here. Everyone from Rihanna, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and Pusha T came out in full force to make this album a stunner. 

Masterful use of samples, undeniable rhythm and flow, and brilliantly selected guest spots enable Fantasy to shine with the brightest of 2010.

Runner up: Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives

Rock Album of the Year

 Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Finally, Arcade Fire will be known for something other than Funeral.

Their previous effort, Neon Bible, may have been considered something of a step backward but the Canadian septet made it all right with The Suburbs. It's more of a rocking, Springsteen-esque album that focuses on the inevitably of growing up and getting stuck in a routine.

It's easy to hear the frustration and tension in Win Butler's voice as he imagines being stuck in a boring white picket fence 9-to-5 type of life.

Musically, the album moves around from the driving rock of Empty Room and Month of May to the electro pop of Half Light II (No Celebration) to more relaxed mellow rockers like Ready to Start and Deep Blue.

And let's not forget the bouncy 80s pop vibe of the unforgettable Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). With The Suburbs, the Canadian septet has painted a breathtaking portrait of the world growing up, and Arcade Fire is growing up along with it.

Runner up: Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

Metal Album of the Year
Orphaned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR

It's hard to deny that 2010 was a pretty lackluster year for metal. Iron Maiden flamed out spectacularly, and not much else really notable came to the forefront. Still, Orphaned Land was a bright spot.

The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR
was the long awaited and anticpated follow up to Mabool, released all the way back in 2004. It was a long wait, but Orphaned Land's tale of good vs. evil, of light against darkness was well worth it.

The prog metallers from Israel combine death metal and progressive metal with folk elements into a dazzling array of Middle Eastern flavored folk/metal. About the only band capable of pulling that vibe off better is Opeth, which is no small praise.

Runner up: Blind Guardian - At the Edge of Time

Song of the Year

 Kanye West feat. Pusha T - Runaway
2nd Place: Arcade Fire - Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
3rd Place - The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

Runaway is an obvious pick for song of the year. It's tough to think of a song that emboides so many elements, and pulls them all off so well. 

You have catchy hooks, impassioned R&B singing, well placed samples, solid rapping, and a very outside the box vocoder piece that even fuses a bit of electronica into the mix. 

Granted, the vocoder part runs on a little long, and with all the quiality competition out this year that was almost enough to knock it from the top spot. But in the end, Kayne's toast to the douchebags runs away with Best Song of 2010 award.

Album of the Year  
Orphaned Land - The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR
2nd Place: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
3rd Place: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

On my short list you have two albums that are trendy picks to win this category. I decided to go in a slightly different direction.

I found Orphaned Land to be slightly more consistent here; The Suburbs had a few sleepy tracks and as big of a fan as I was of Kanye, there were a couple of tracks I could live without.

That's not to say that every track on the ORwarriOR is necessarily perfect, but with this album Orphaned Land takes you through a mystical oddesy that weaves so many different elements together. It's just enough to lift Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR into this year's top spot. 

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