Cold War Kids - Yours is Mine


Release Date: 01/25/11

I was one of those rare people who loved Kings of Leon's Only By The Night and loved it even more when I found out that everyone in the indie world was dismayed at how much attention it was getting. Sure it was more a little more poppy and sure the vocals were a little more pushed to the front. But to me it was very much still a Kings of Leon album and I would have rather them on top of the world then plenty of other artists. Cold War Kids was a band that was very much in the same spot that Kings of Leon were in prior to Only By The Night. After releasing their less than gratifying album, Loyalty to Loyalty, Cold War Kids was looking for a way to capitalize on other indie bands' success in the mainstream and move in the direction of alternative rock.

Their solution came in the form of hiring producer Jacquire King, the mastermind behind Only By The Night and Modest Mouse's Good News For People Love Bad News. According to Nathan Willett, the band was confident that King's production would "work miracles with us". Unfortunately for the Cold War Kids, it turns out that miracles like Good News For People Love Bad News and Only By The Night are indeed miracles and when you treat music formulaically, you're going to get just that. In what could have been a repackaged and more accessible version of Robbers & Cowards, Mine is Yours feels unnecessarily dumbed down and faceless. And for some strange reason, Willett has developed a strange timbre in his vocals in attempts stand out of the crowd, but it is simply not a pretty thing.

Now, of course, there are a couple of nice spots in here, namely "Finally Begin" and "Sensitive Kid". "Finally Begin", as cliche-filled as it is, might be the only alternative rock song on the album that fulfills their "new direction" with a catchy chorus and delayed guitars. Meanwhile, "Sensitive Kid" might be the only track on the album that actually manages to capture what made Cold War Kids' prior albums great and work that into the new context. With jumbling piano chords and a falsetto chorus, "Sensitive Kid" is a faint reminder of what Mine is Yours could have been. But when you put it next to extraordinarily annoying singles, "Louder than Ever" and "Mine is Yours", you'll find yourself feeling like you are the one being hung up to dry.

Cold War Kids - Finally Begin


Academy Award Nominations for Best Original Score

The nominees for 2010's Academy Awards were just posted yesterday morning! Its always exciting to see great films that aren't always recognized by the ticket office get some much deserved attention. And while I'd love to see one of the more experimental films like The Social Network or Inception take the Best Picture award home, my money is on the period drama, The King's Speech. Although I haven't seen it yet, The Academy Awards have a history with period dramas and films that feature some kind of disability, and The King's Speech has both! You can see the full nomination list here:

When it comes to soundtracks though, the results could be a little out of the ordinary this year. This year's contenders for Best Original Score feature some familiar faces, but also some newcomers. Scores for films are often seen as unartistic and practical uses of music, but there are plenty of artists and composers who are doing some really creative things with their scores. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' electronic score for The Social Network has been garnering a lot of momentum after winning at The Golden Globes earlier (and also from receiving the #11 spot on my Top 20 releases of 2010 of course!). Their unorthodox soundtrack is definitely my pick for 2010, but we shall see what "the Academy" deems worthy. In the meantime, lets take a look at each of the nominees, who wrote the scores, and why they were chosen.

The Social Network

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

I've already written some on this soundtrack, but I'd like to insist that not only does The Social Network OST point in some exciting directions for single artist scores, it also also plays a significant part in what makes The Social Network successful as a movie and a piece of culture. Just as I now can't view Zuckerberg without the words of Aaron Sorkin, I can also no longer view him as a character without the electronic music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The nomination and the Golden Globes award give hope to a number of non-classical or non-film world musicians and the credibility that they can receive.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - In Motion

127 Hours

A.R. Rahman

This is only Rahman's second Academy Award nomination (having already won an award for his Slumdog Millionaire score), although he already feels like an institution in Hollywood filmmaking. Rahman's got an experimental edge behind his music that doesn't shy away from pop styles and interesting recording techniques. The song "If I Rise", which was also nominated for Best Original Song, is absolutely gorgeous, featuring Dido Armstrong and Rahman himself on vocals. Here is one truly unique composer: he sings on his own soundtracks! I haven't seen the movie yet, but I could definitely feel the desperation of the desert in the dry acoustic guitar and Middle Eastern scales in tracks like "Liberation". In general, the 127 Hours score is strange and multifaceted and Rahman is an exciting composer to have working in Hollywood.

A.R. Rahman - If I Rise

The King's Speech

Alexandre Desplat

Desplat's soundtrack for The King's Speech is just what you would expect from such a movie. Its floating strings are emotionally gripping and its tinkling piano themes are characteristic and heartwarming. The score, like the movie, is all the things a great Hollywood Academy Award-winning film should be and rightfully so. The fact that both the film and the score are "safe", does not erase the fact that this is just great stuff. Desplat has been nominated previously for his work on The Queen in 2008, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009 and Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2010, quickly becoming a force in emotional film scoring for dramas. Having written scores for three humongous movies in 2010 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1, The Ghost Writer, and The King's Speech), Desplat's blossoming reputation will no doubt only continue to grow in the future.

Alexandre Desplat - Lionel and Bertie

How To Train Your Dragon

John Powell

John Powell is a kid movie/action movie film scoring veteran. Having scored everything from Ice Age to X-Men to the Bourne Ultimatum, Powell has a knack for writing lively and colorful pieces of music for films that demand that style. The scenes from the surprise hit, How To Train Your Dragon, give him just the right amount of variation to write sweet, minimalist tracks like "Forbidden Friendship" and be Hans Zimmer-inspired in tracks like "Dragon's Den". The score has plenty of fun folk references and nice listens as well, but to me still lacks the character and precision of scores for animated films such as Thomas Newman's Pixar films or Michael Giacchino's Up. Definitely an interesting pick over Danny Elfman's score for Alice In Wonderland, but it might have more to do with the quality of the movies themselves.

John Powell - This Is Berk


Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer has been criticized quite a bit lately for his music all sounding the same. Let me just say this: its mostly true. And when you write as much music as Hans Zimmer does, its almost inevitable. However, the Inception score that he produced is probably one of the best pieces he has written since Gladiator back in 2000. Like the movie itself, Zimmer's score is subtle and detailed but big and soaring as well. The score is deeply rooted in the ideology of the film, even taking its infamous brass cue from a slowed down rendering of the Edith Piaf song that the characters use to wake each other up from dreams in the movie. Don't believe it? Check out the viral video below that shows it. Either way, if you've seen the movie, there's no way you can listen to "Time" and not can chills. Well done Hans.

Hans Zimmer - Time

But let's face it: for all the times film score heroes like Hans Zimmer and John Williams have been nominated, Hans Zimmer hasn't won since 1994 (The Lion King) and Williams hasn't won since 1993 (Schindler's List). Just as pop music and classical music is constantly changing, film scores will no doubt shift as well. Traditional scores will always be around, just as traditional films will always be around. But as the Golden Globes have predicted, the times are a-changin'. So whether its David Byrne who is creating music for Sean Penn's newest film or Johnny Greenwood's (of Radiohead) score for Norwegian Wood, I am predicting that 2011 will be a big year for single-artist film scores and more non-classical musicians breaking into Hollywood.

What do you guys think? What are your favorite films and film scores of 2010? Who deserves to win this year?


Lia Ices - Grown Unknown


Release Date: 01/25/11

Lia Ices' sophomore release, Grown Unknown, represents an agreement between the accessible and experimental sides of female singer-songwriters in the indie world. Whether its the pure accessibility of Feist and Laura Marling or the experimental quirkiness of Joanna Newsom, these kinds of artists (all of whom I greatly admire) usually fall into one of the two camps for me. And although of course things are never quite that simple, Ices' music and especially Grown Unknown, hits a sweet middle ground for me. Aside from the fact that she recently signed to the Jagjaguwar label, not much is known about her and that certainly helps in letting the music speak for itself. Ices' music also differentiates itself quite easily from the pack by quite often being texture and production-based rather than melody-based. Contemplative and fragile, Ices' chirping vocals know when to pull back and when to let loose. Taking cues from Bon Iver, Ices lets her cooing fill the background spaces of the songs with reverb-laden harmonies that set the tone for much of the album.

In compliment to the creativity of the production, the songs on Grown Unknown are all slow-to-mid tempo, but never sound similar or trite. Grown Unknown is ethereal and spacious, yet grounded and earthy at the same time. Ices' instrumentation is centered around piano and acoustic guitar but also includes some of the most creative rhythmic and textural devices out there. Whether its the interlocking rhythm of the clapping on the title track or the beautiful string arrangements on "Ice Wine", the production here is top notch and surrounds Ices' vulnerable vocals in layers of character and sound. The single, "Daphne", featuring the addition of new label mate Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, is irresistibly crafted in harmony and instrumentation. The song is split into two sections, but is held together by an unwavering melody. Starting out soft and getting big at the end, once the track ends you'll be sure to miss it like an old friend immediately.

The album begins soft and quiet, but fortunately, picks up its pace in its second half. When the folk strings come in at the end of "Grown Unknown" and you get one of the rare moments of arrival in the album, any thoughts that pin Lia Ices as just another female singer-songwriter fade away. The strong undercurrent of momentum and desire beneath the songs suggest that Grown Unknown is the sound of an understated artist trying to take off and define herself in a world of impostors and copycats. There aren't many moments of arrival in Grown Unknown, but maybe the struggle; the growing; the spreading of wings, is the point.

Lia Ices - Daphne

Lia Ices - Grown Unknown


Destroyer - Kaputt


Merge Records

Judging from only the first month of the year, apparently 2011 is the year of the return of the saxophone. But contrasting with the upbeat sounds from Iron and Wine's newest, the saxophone solos on Destroyer's Kaputt, embody a smooth lounge sound that characterizes much of the sound of the album. Destroyer's newest is an unnervingly warm record that bears a lot of weight beneath the smooth brass colors and disco beats. In other words, Dan Bejar's strange songwriting has been suppressed into feel-good elevator music, Kenny G style, if you can believe it. A bit unsurprisingly though, it fits right in with the Roxy Music-inspired trends of indie pop these days. Fortunately, Kaputt strips away the the lo-fi and garage rock aspects of many similar records and creates a sound that is as pristine and well-produced as it is nostalgic.

Flowing together from song to song, the album often feels much less like a collection of songs and more like one elevated experience spread out through the different tracks. But thing is for sure: Bejar doesn't beat around the bush about the intended high feeling that the album portrays. In the title track, Bejar spins an incredibly catchy melody over these explicit remarks: "Wasting your days chasing some girls alright/Chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night". Its a strange fantasy for this genre to idolize, but Bejar does it so convincingly that you won't be second guessing his intentions. While the silliness of it all certainly puts it passed being autobiographical, this is the impression that much of Kaputt gives off. Even the more upbeat tracks like "Savage Night at the Opera" feel like New Order on a heavy drug trip. Most of the tracks have this affect, and if you buy into it, Bejar's soothing melodies and synths will make you like the 80s adult contemporary genre more than you ever thought you would.

However, all good things must come to an end and thus the unique sound does admittedly get old. The textures and chord progressions that start the album feeling fresh get a bit stale by the time you get to "Song for America". In fact, the album might have been fatally over-saturated if it were not for the magnificent closing track, "Bay of Pigs". The eleven-minute song starts out ambient and exploratory featuring the very best of Bejar's sporadic melodies and abstract lyrics. Slowly evolving into a delightful disco beat, the track is brimming with emotion and desire. Like M83's Saturdays = Youth from a few years ago, or a number of other successful retro creations of the indie pop world, Kaputt continues the trend of successfully reviving genres that you never thought you wanted revived and somehow making them likable.

Destroyer - Kaputt


Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean


Warner Bros.
Release Date: 01/25/11

Kiss Each Other Clean is a bizarre album. Not so long ago, Sam Beam's hushed whispers and disarming folk songs were an institution of the indie music world. We all beheld the magic that was contained in Iron and Wine's cover of "Such Great Heights" that was released on the Garden State soundtrack that boosted him to credible fame. Yet here on their first major label release, Iron and Wine continues that which was started on The Shepard's Dog of shedding much of the sound that they were once known for. Beam singing is now anything but hushed and his instrumentation anything but acoustic. Kiss Each Other Clean is definitely not just Iron and Wine plugged in.

But even without knowing Beam's past work, the sounds on Kiss Each Other Clean are still often hard to wrap your mind around. Beam claims that the songs are inspired from a multitude of pop genres, calling the album "music people heard in their parent's car growing up… that early-to-mid '70s FM, radio-friendly music." And as strange as it sounds, the statement is surprisingly accurate. Beam and his laundry list of contributors have crafted a lovely album full of interesting sounds and production choices to accompany his newest batch of songs. Check out the strange aural landscape on "Monkeys Uptown" that includes a drum machine, funky synths, and a xylophone or the following song "Half Moon", which references Eagles-era country rock, backed up by "du-whops" from a few female vocalists. Yes, Kiss Each Other Clean puts to use the retro-obsessed trends of culture. But it does so with an amount of artistry that transcends its use of nostalgia.

Even so, Beam is still at his best in the quieter tracks like the piano-led, "Godless Brother In Love". Here Beam delivers a heartwarming vocal melody with some folky harmonies and acoustic guitars to boot. Once you get over how ridiculous it is that the 70s vibe of the music could sound fresh, the songs really do speak for themselves. In the creative opener, "Walking Far From Home", Beam repeats a hypnotizing melody over changing backgrounds that feature some of Beam's best storytelling since Our Endless Numbered Days. When listening to the album straight through, you'll definitely have those moments where you miss the Iron and Wine of yesteryear and wonder if its even the same guy behind those gimmicky saxophone solos. Even so, Kiss Each Other Clean includes enough catchy pop songs and good songwriting to make it a successful transition onto a mainstream label and an interesting new stylistic turn for Iron and Wine.

Iron and Wine - Godless Brother In Love


The Decemberists - The King is Dead


Capitol Records
Release Date: 01/18/11

The idea of "redefining" your image or becoming interested in different genres and instruments has been a staple of pop ever since The Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's and Radiohead's Kid A. Last we heard from the indie intellectuals, they were making the over-the-top, but convincing concept album The Hazards of Love. The King is Dead is the band's next stop on their endless journey of self-discovery that takes them back a bit to their earlier albums. In contrast to their previously European folk-informed album, The King is Dead is their take on American influences via slide guitars, harmonicas, fiddles and square-dance harmonies. Also in intentional contrast, while The Hazards of Love was led by a rock opera concept and wordy lyrical devices, here The Decemberists stand in sharp contrast. The King is Dead features the shorter songs, somewhat simpler lyrics, and more poppy arrangements of their earlier albums.

Opening with what might be the strongest track on the album, "Don't Carry It All", lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy sings an infectiously simple melody over an Arcade Fire-esque beat about the joys and pains of bearing one another's burdens. Meloy also proclaims a new "turning of the season" and is a hopeful opener in what could have been a refreshing return to simpler roots for The Decemberists.

Unfortunately, despite their most earnest attempts to convince you that they are invested in their new alt-country inspirations, their return to shorter songs and simpler ideas feels a bit too forced to be sincere. And its not that they aren't trying. Even enlisting some help to convince us of their new style, Americana veteran Gillian Welch joins the crew for most of the album, providing some harmonies that add some much needed variety to Meloy's dominating crooning. However, Welch, who has been received some authenticity-related criticism herself, can't save the album from feeling like its merely going through the motions. It seems that instead of creating a style change that might inspire new songwriting muses or creative genre-blending, The King is Dead seems to be held back by its new aesthetics. While the album starts memorably with the upbeat indie-folk sound of "Calamity Song" and the nice moments of tenderness in "Rise To Me", the songs following end up sounding drab, overly familiar, and largely forgettable.

For the most part, Meloy seems to have either lost or given up the wide-eyed melodies of Picaresque and The Crane Wife that gave his music life and character. Hearing the nonsensical lyrics in the "rock" song of the album, "This Why We Fight", even the songwriting seems to lack the consistency that was once so such a vital weapon in The Decemberists' arsenal. Ultimately, while I don't usually buy into criticizing artists for a lack of authenticity, The King is Dead's lack of memorable ideas fails to convince me that The Decemberists belong in such a genre at all. The end result is an album that is fine enough for a listen through, but not quite enough to live up to the band's big name.

The Decemberists - Don't Carry It All


Sleeping at Last - Yearbook: January EP


Release Date: 01/11/11

The January EP is Sleeping at Last's fourth release in their Yearbook project that has them releasing one 3-song EP every month for a year. The project is the latest development in the independent world's avoidance of the full-length record and upsetting of the music industry. So far, having released three consistently successful EP's (October, November, and December), the duo's stripped down and more experimental sound has worked to great effect for them. The big emo-rock of their early, more mainstream music feels like a distant cousin to the subtle electronics and piano-led tracks off of these EPs. Even still, although they sing that "The future is brighter than any flashback" in the EP opener, one can only wonder if their mellowed out pop sound will begin to grow old 12 EPs down the road. Yet for now, Sleeping at Last has continued to dress their sweet little pop songs in interesting production and disarming craftsmanship that keeps the songs feeling fresh.

The January EP begins with "January White", which is probably of the weaker tracks in the Yearbook project so far. If you have held back the cynic in your mind long enough to get through "Snow" off the December EP though, then "January White" shouldn't push you over the edge. Its unfortunate because the song does some interesting things, but never quite enough to convincingly compensate for the cliche New Year optimism. Luckily, it is followed by a gorgeous instrumental track that depicts the season to much greater effect in "The Ash is In Our Clothes". Led by a film-score ready piano line, the song bounces with orchestral flourishes and an enchanting atmosphere that will have you wishing the track didn't end so soon. The aural feast transitions into the bubbly electronics that introduce the EP closer, "Wire", a song about living abundantly in every moment of life we are given. "Wire" is the new Sleeping at Last at their best: light and understated, but charged by meaningful lyrics and catchy melodies.

Sleeping at Last isn't do anything revolutionary here, but they are quietly rediscovering themselves in the independent world without losing their keen ear for pop melodies. If the January EP is any indication of the EPs to come, I wouldn't at all be surprised if the future keeps on getting brighter for Sleeping at Last.

Sleeping at Last - Wires


Best of 2010

That we've made it through my long-winded list of my favorite music releases of 2010, now's your chance to respond. What was your favorite album of 2010/what were you listening to the most last year?

Here's my complete list, along with some honorable mentions that are too good not to respect. So much good music last year!

1. Sufjan Stevens - Age of Adz
2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
3. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
4. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
5. Victoire - Cathedral City
6. Mumford and Sons - Sigh No More
7. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
8. The National - High Violet
9. Nico Muhly - A Good Understanding/I Drink the Air Before Me
10. Vampire Weekend - Contra
11. Trenton Reznor and Atticus Finch - The Social Network OST
12. Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
13. Jonsi - Go
14. Thomas Ades - Tevot
15. Owen Pallett - Heartland
16. Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
17. Brooke Fraser - Flags
18. Daft Punk - Tron Legacy OST
19. Yeasayer - Odd Blood
20. Broken Bells - Broken Bells

Honorable Mentions:
: Stars - The Five Ghosts
: John Mark McMillan - The Medicine
: Delorean - Subiza
: Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
: Frightened Rabbit - Winter of Mixed Drinks
: Girl Talk - All Day


#1. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

For me, not only is The Age of Adz 2010's best and most important record, it's also a a ubiquitous culmination of Sufjan's work as a multifaceted musician. Hyped in the blogosphere as Sufjan Stevens electronic album, we find Stevens breaking away from the mold of his critically acclaimed style in more ways than just adding synths to the mix and ditching banjos. Since the release of his fan-favorite, Illinois back in 2005, Sufjan had been making some ambiguous comments that were disappointing for fans of his music hoping for a followup to Illinois, including comments about his lack of songwriting inspiration and belief in the "record" system. In one statement, he, like many other artists, questioned the purpose of the length of a normal record when the majority of people purchase music track-by-track and listen to music primarily on shuffle. Just when a followup to Illinois sounded like it would never come, Sufjan unexpectedly released his stunning EP, All Delighted People, and announced the released of his upcoming full-length record. But instead of releasing something that reunited critics and fans-alike with their favorite agreeable indie singer-songwriter, The Age of Adz has split fans and critics across the board with many respected critics unsure even of what to make of it.

Truthfully though, apart from all the buzz, The Age of Adz isn't a far cry from a lot of Stevens' recent work. Check out the electronics of "Movement IV: Traffic Shock" off of his instrumental work The BQE, or the vocal manipulation/symphonic arrangements in the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz is simply the next logical step. Yes, he using drum machines and synths here, but his brand of electronics is uniquely his own. The best example of his new sound is the 8-minute title track that starts with industrial electronic drums and brass hits that slowly transforms into softer gorgeous section of melodious choirs and ends acoustic of all things. Foregoing typical pop structure, the song presents Stevens as a master arranger, songwriter, and composer, wrapping his song around different forms of simple melodic and lyrical motifs. Juggling such a huge overload of sounds and instruments, the album is mixed in such a way that the attention shifts around organically, spotlighting different aspects of the arrangements and sometimes even letting vocals fall into the background (which has plagued a number of people's first listens to the album). However, I found that the more layers of sound I peeled back, the more I realized how deep the songs really go.

But Stevens is doing more here than just adding synths in the mix. In The Age of Adz, Stevens abandons his primary songwriting crutch, the concept album, and replaces it with something intensely personal, somewhat hyperreal, and even emotionally explicit, three things that Stevens has never touched before. Stevens has stated that his work on the instrumental album The BQE "kinda sabotaged the mechanical way of approaching my music, which was basically narrative long-form." In some interviews, he has stated that he desired to write songs that felt physical and satisfying, rather than academically intelligent. But just when you think he is finally writing songs just of themselves, The Age of Adz still finds Stevens referencing things outside himself, most significantly, the schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. Inspired by the often offensive and perverse art of the self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, Stevens claims to have seen a bit of himself in the man's life. But here is where things get really wacky. We're expected to compare the level-headed art of Sufjan Stevens with the isolation-created art of Robertson? The influences play out in the religious and science fiction intermingling of Robertson in songs like "Get Real Get Right", right alongside the frantic emotional turbulence. But like the popularity of stunt-work mockumentaries this year such as Joaquin Phoenix's I'm Still Here, or Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, Sufjan seems to be writing about himself, someone else, and nobody in particular all at once. In "I Want to Be Well", Stevens confronts the viral infection that he suffered from last year in uncharacteristically vulgar ways while in "Vesuvias", he refers to himself in the third person, giving himself spiritual guidance via a mythical burning volcano. Did Stevens finally crack under all the pressure like fellow surrealists Kanye West and Thom Yorke? Is this really his Kid A? He seems to be okay, but Stevens leaves the truth of the answer behind for the sake of making sincere art that captures real emotions, regardless if they are true of him or not.

A listen through the astounding 25-minute, "Impossible Soul", reveals that Sufjan Stevens is also taking a crack at the way music is listened to in a relevant way. Reconciling his concerns about the nature of music in the digital world, Stevens packs an entire albums worth of music into a single track for the price of one gigantic mp3. Featuring an AutoTune section, all-out dance section, and an acoustic section to end the album, "Impossible Soul" is a monumental closing to a hugely ambitious album that has enough creativity and songwriting strength to stand on its own. Many have left criticism of the album to words like "interesting", "important", or just "strange", all of which are fair and justified. Others claim that ambition has finally got the best of Stevens. But honestly when has Sufjan Stevens ever succeeded in being anything less? The Age of Adz is a messy, but poignant manifestation of everything from culture trends in 2010, to hyperrealism, the state of the music industry, Royal Robertson, and Sufjan Stevens himself.


#2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Arcade Fire isn't really into being subtle. Everything from their first two albums, the concepts, the amount of people they put on stage, the soaring vocals, the arrangements, just screamed big. Back in 2004, when their first album Funeral was released, it wasn't exactly the thing to do in the indie world. But after taking the world by storm, Arcade Fire now has a host of clones, admirers in the mainstream (John Legend anybody?), and a pervasive influence in culture that has even made their newest album shoot to #1 in Billboard America. But for all the attention that the album has gotten, I would say that although the conceptual material of The Suburbs is take-on-the-world big in typical Arcade Fire style, the way they go about it is surprisingly not. The Suburbs is 16 pop tracks with incredibly straightforward structures and arrangements compared to the two-part opuses of Funeral or the busy production of Neon Bible. Many of the songs also lack the emotional climaxes in each song that are so familiar to Arcade Fire fans and instead replaces them with an unsettling steadiness that no doubt contributes to the themes of the songs. As frontman Win Butler has stated, the album is "neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs - it's a letter from the suburbs", and fits into that unique scheme pretty consistently.

As Win and Regine sing about riding bikes down suburban streets, chasing the American dream up the corporate ladder, wasting time, being in punk rock bands, and working meaningless jobs, The Suburbs becomes an incredibly meaningful reflection on what it means to be a generation of people who live and die in the sprawling world of cul-de-sacs and shopping malls. Butler's stories seem to explore a variety of generations' experiences with suburban life from the Don Draper business man in "Modern Man" to a teenager's rebellion and subculture in "Suburban War", and even an old, cynical man's grumblings about technology in "We Used To Wait". The way Arcade Fire translates these stories musically is even more exciting though. By referencing different musical styles, they give each of these songs a setting and even reference particular decades. One of the best examples of this is "City With No Children", a song about living underground in fear of world war where they brilliantly reference classic Springsteen rock. In other parts of the album they do a punk rock song ("Month of May"), a disco-pop song ("Sprawl II"), and even a modern pop-rock song ("Modern Man"). I love the way they use the musical references for more than just nostalgia and instead pull meaning out of the style to compliment their lyrical insights.

Upon my first listening of the album, I thought it lacked variation and was a bit unorganized. But the structure and organization of the record really do play an integral part in the success of the album, which is laid out as two records with four songs on each side. Organized in this way, the flow of the album totally works as the pace picks up toward the end of each record (in "Half Light II" and "Sprawl II"). In some ways, The Suburbs feels like the conceptual antithesis of Funeral. Where Funeral was full of huge communal moments where it felt as if the whole word were singing alongside Butler, in The Suburbs we find those moments replaced with lonely falsettos and hollow reverbs. In terms of consistent songwriting and unparalleled overall success, The Suburbs also picks up where Funeral left off. Resonating with an entire generation trying to understand their suburban upbringing, it is the most complete and consistent conceptual album of the year.


#3. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Before for all the hype, the outrageous tweets, the award shows, the hollywood scandal, the talk show appearances, the breakups, the breakdowns, and everything else that makes Kanye West the ridiculously obsessed over popular culture icon that he is today, Kanye was once known for making soul-sampling, perfectly sequenced, orchestral hip hop and having a knack for delivering some of the most memorable lines in rap. However, after Kanye released his breakup Autotune album 808's and Heartbreaks, it seemed as if the culminating work that is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy might never happen. The slow unveiling of how serious Kanye was about his comeback came in the form of his G.O.O.D. Friday releases, one track a week until the album was released. The effect was a snowballing buildup of hype that exploded in an album with a reputation that proceeded itself. But removed from all that, the truth is that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is everything that you've heard it is. It is a masterpiece of conceptual complexity, enveloping the persona of Kanye West and distorting those fragile lines between reality and fantasy.

Then again, Kanye West's music has always embraced the controversial spiritual battles of the inner soul. The struggle continues here as he triumphantly claims "No one man should have all that power" as his theme song, while also referencing his own suicide in the same song. Touching on fame, sex, lust, glory, relationships, and identity, the themes trace their way through moments of both painfully honest Kanye reality ("Runaway") and bizarre, explicitly vulgar fantasy ("Hell of a Life"), as well as just about everything in between. From the opening fairty-tale monologue that Nicki Minaj delivers with such theatrical perfection to the final political rantings of Gil Scott-Heron, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfectly crafted album that is made to be heard front to back. As the album pushes forward to its climax, a fantasy story about being cheated on in "All of the Lights" becomes a reality in "Blame Game", Kanye rapping "Stick around and some feelings might surface". The heartfelt breakup song is then interrupted by a completely inappropriate monologue by Chris Rock, almost like Kanye letting his Twitter-esque, stream-of-thought consciousness blur the line of what's real and what's not. By the time you arrive in the middle of an urbanized version of Bon Iver's "Woods" sample from a song called "Lost in the World", as vocalists shout "Run from the light!/Run from the night!/Run for your life!", you won't be sure if you've arrived at Kanye's hyperrealist redemption or his final demise. In the end, it doesn't really matter though, because you won't be able to keep from applauding at his relentless work ethic and creativity in what is most certainly the album he was made to make. In My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West places himself at the top of the artistic and pop culture world, proving that he can use his dark, twisted, persona to create something that transcends even his own fantasies.


#4. LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

James Murphy is somewhat an odd indie music hero. After breaking into the hipster world with their debunking of "hip" in "Losing My Edge", LCD Soundsystem's tongue-in-cheek, beyond-cool image has somehow allowed it to be appropriate for a middle-aged man to be singing in a screechy falsetto or shouting about drunk girls. Adding another level of curiosity to the music, Murphy is constantly claiming that people take their music too seriously in interviews as if he really is just an old dude wanting to make fun dance music for kids. And that is certainly a way to interpret the music of Murphy. But then you'll get to a song that has the emotional weight of a lifetime of regret and doubt like "Can Change" and "All I Want". And although this is indeed Murphy at his most intimate and personal album yet, he never forfeits his artistic ambitions for the cause of sentimentality. The forty-year old producer/singer has a strange affinity for punk and disco that is unlike other nostalgia-driven bands in that he is actually old enough to have lived through both of those eras. Because of that, Murphy's brand of electronics is a bit more raw then the typical techno/disco band and his gut instinct a bit more confident.

If you've heard previous LCD Soundsystem releases, you'll know that he isn't afraid to prolong track over 7 or 8 minutes, infamously stating, "I like things that do one thing and do it well." In This is Happening, most of the tracks last over 7 minutes, recreating the manipulation of desire and release like a tried and true disco track. No song does it better than "One Touch", funk-disco masterpiece about satisfaction and desire that begins with a slowly chromatically rising synth bleep that never quite resolves. In fact, the hyped up single, "Drunk Girls", is a bit of a misnomer in the context of the album, but also acts as a great balancing song that delivers some of Murphy's best double meaning lyrics in the form of a The Velvet Underground-inspired song. Fortunately, this time around Murphy's focus seems to be on writing some of his catchiest and melody-driven music yet. Even the typical funky fare of "Pow Pow" eventually arrives at a soaring melody. Its hard to know whether or not there is a track here will be as musically and culturally significant as "All My Friends" from the Sound of Silver album, but its safe to say that if this truly is Murphy's last LCD Soundsystem album it would be a perfectly suitable album to bow out on.

And here, what might be my favorite music video of the year, the Spike Jonze's directed, "Drunk Girls":


#5. Victoire - Cathedral City

When people say that the classical music genre in itself is dead, my first reaction would be to point to thriving classical composers such as Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli, who are doing what the great Western tradition of classical composers has always done: making complex pieces of art that comment on life and society in the form of musical language. Then again, what makes such composers relevant is their dialogue with popular music that is more apparent then ever in the debut album from Victoire. After all, its hard to say if in the future they will be seen as a "quintet" or as just a straight up indie band. Led by composer and keyboardist Missy Mazzoli, the group mixes pseudo-classical minimalist instrumental music and experimental indie-pop. Victoire includes an all-star performing lineup that include a clarinetist, two keyboardists, a violinist, and a bassist with Missy Mazzoli leading the charge. Each of the songs on their debut full-length album are contemplative and mysterious pieces of music that reflect on modern life's moments in sometimes sweet and sometimes tense ways.

Mazzoli certainly speaks the language of pop music, but with it she says things that aren't quite typical of the pop world. In the song "I Am Coming For My Things", Victoire uses samples of speech to add another ingredient of intrigue to their complex musical creations. Is the piece about materialism and desire? Is it about homelessness and emotional apathy? While Mazzoli is often ambiguous thematically in her pieces, the music certainly encourages the listener to soak it in rather than to dissect it. Victoire seems to like to focus on and repeat small moments of harmonic and rhythmic musical shifts, producing the effect of a composer exploring discrete moments of time and emotion. In one of my favorite pieces off the album, "Like a Miracle", Victoire plays buzzing electronics and eery violin lines behind a modified voice as if it is diving into the exploration of a single spoken syllable frozen in time. Its astounding that productions of postmodernity such as Cathedral City can produce such dark, unsettling, and daring music using such simple harmonic language. Its a true testament to the careful and meticulous hands of Missy Mizzoli, the delicate performance of Victoire, and their willingness to be equally comfortable playing in both clubs and concert stages. For me, Cathedral City not only was the best instrumental album and debut album of 2010, but it is also in an incredibly hopeful direction for the future of classical music that is as intrinsically relevant as it is profound.


#6. Mumford and Sons - Sigh No More

The phenomenon that is Mumford and Sons is almost unexplainably strange. How did this brand new, pseudo-folk English band without even a drummer become one of the primary alternative rock acts in the mainstream United States music scene in a matter of a few months? Maybe its that Mumford and Sons have one of the most tantalizing and energetic live shows around that is instantly fan-winning. Or maybe its that with the recent successes of indie crossover bands like Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, and Phoenix have had in the mainstream, the radios are willing to market anyone with flannel shirts, acoustic guitars, and a danceable beat. Either way, Sigh No More, their debut release that came out in the UK in 2009 and in the US in early 2010, has gone from the folk-revivalist communities of London to sweep across mainstream America. What's crazy about Mumford and Sons is that it features some of the best rock anthems of the year and it would be a stretch to actually call them a rock band at all. Although they're made up of four acoustic multi-instrumentalists, a kick drum, and a tambourine, they somehow manage to fill up a space big enough for a rock stadium.

The grace and subtlety of similar bands like The Avett Brothers is all but absent here, but is replaced with an utter lack of restrain, making their frenetic banjo playing and drumming instantly accessible and satisfying. Mumford and Sons let it all hang out in self-effacing love songs like "Little Lion Man" and "The Cave" that are fueled with so much emotion and reckless abandon that stomping on a kick drum seems like the only sensible thing to do. Surprisingly, Sigh No More is also a delightfully spiritual and optimistic album that reaches for the stars and ends up in the middle of a forest of faith, doubt, God, and love. The lyrics are simple, but full of heart and honesty, just like the music that accompanies it. Especially on quieter songs such as "Timshel", where lead singer Marcus Mumford is given some space and a backing of angelic harmonies, we sit atop the canopy with Mumford and sigh no more. If you're looking for an authentic folk album, this probably isn't it. But the good part is that Mumford and Sons don't pretend to be something they're not. Sigh No More is a glowing pop/rock album that is a great example of a music that throws logic and sensibility out and instead embraces what feels good.


#7. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

Everything from the album's kooky, science fiction concept, to Monae's respectable eclecticism and undeniable charm just rings fresh. The album, which is actually two albums put together (identified as Suite II and Suite III), is part of Monae's bizarre concept based on the black and white science fiction classic, Metropolis, where she is a messianic ArchAndroid, held down by the nature of her robotic identity. The reference appears a little random and irrelevant at first, but when Monae uses the metaphor to represent the racial struggles of African-Americans and makes musical reference to musical heroes from R&B's past, the imagery becomes profoundly effective. Following the orchestral Overture opener, Suite II begins with three quirky, upbeat R&B wonders that seamlessly blend indie pop, modern hip hop, and nostalgic R&B/soul styles to create a brilliant piece of retro afrofuturism that is at times thoughtful and engaging, but always fun and light-hearted. Monae's theatrical and artistic background shines in a way that is novel while still avoiding the conceptual trappings that would keep the album from feeling like it is trying too hard.

Whether she is referencing Music of My Mind-era Stevie Wonder in "Locked Inside" or switching between swirling indie pop and R&B choruses in "Oh, Maker", her vocal acrobatics and consistent songwriting keeps the genre-flipping feel like a natural outflow of her glowing personality. Each song explores different aspects of Monae's masterful vocal talents and studious musical knowledge that encompasses Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, old spy movie soundtracks, and her own brand of vocal quirkiness (see "Wondaland"). And then there is "Tightrope", a single so well constructed that it proves that Monae can translate her unique musical vision and voice into something instantly accessible and catchy as well. Janelle Monae's The ArchAndroid is hard to define and tie down, but still manages to be fun; an instant a classic in this way and a great reminder that there is incredibly exciting music to be made if we continue to make room for unique artists like Monae to exist.