My Top Ten Albums of 2010

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In 1997, my vote for the best movie went to “The Ice Storm” by Ang Lee. Which was saying something, because this paean to 1970s suburban ennui beat out a raw, haunting, sexually charged tour de force by Paul Thomas Anderson– the seemingly insurmountable masterpiece “Boogie Nights.”

Now it’s thirteen years later, and the Arcade Fire has released a seemingly insurmountable masterpiece that’s a paean to 1970s suburban ennui. But as good as Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” is (I feel strongly that it flirts with “five star status”), it was beat out this year for my best album by a raw, haunting, sexually charged tour de force– “Brothers” by the Black Keys.

These two albums were, simply put, in a class by themselves– in 2010, there were “The Suburbs” and “Brothers,” then there was everything else. In addition to their cinematic parallels to 1997, the musical prominence of these two records recalls 1986, when R.E.M.’s “Life Rich Pageant” and The Smith’s “The Queen is Dead” seemed to be on everybody’s Walkman, often on opposite sides of the same Maxell cassette.

Any simmering debates over the viability of the full-length album in a world of fragmented attention spans and single-song downloads were emphatically resolved in favor of the long-play format by these two monumental works. They each seem meant to be consumed and considered in their entirety, as a larger cohesive work rather than an assemblage of unrelated individual songs.

#1 – The Black Keys

I have a deep-seeded bias against white guys who play the blues. I like my bluesmen old, black and Southern, preferably with a background in agriculture and/or train jumping. Muddy Waters. Robert Johnson. Howlin’ Wolf. The great Mississippi John Hurt.

I have absolutely no time for white blues guys who merely parrot blues riffs through a pale, sanitized filter. You can’t whitewash the crossroads. Which is why, while I respect their technical ability, (heresy alert!) I find Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jeff Beck utterly uninspiring, and borderline milquetoast. Eric Clapton isn’t God; he’s merely Good.  And don’t even get me started on George Thoroughgood.

If you’re going to wrestle with the devil in the dark Delta night, you’d better bring something original to the brawl. Which is why the Stones and Led Zeppelin are two of the five greatest rock-n-roll bands in history–they used the raw materials of the blues to forge something entirely new and utterly their own. It’s the difference between the creatively faithful and the soullessly derivative. Or, in more modern terms, the difference between the brilliant sonic chaos of Jack White and the inane McBlues noodling of John Mayer.

Which brings me to The Black Keys.  After the ass-kicking, take no prisoner approach the White Stripes brought to the blues milieu, I honestly thought there was nowhere left for blues explorists, especially white ones, to go. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Black Keys are two white guys from Akron who recorded “Brothers” in 2010 in their basement studio. They sound like five black guys from Detroit who recorded their album in 1966 at Stax Records in Memphis with Marshall Chess producing and Muscle Shoals’ Swampers guesting.

Are The Black Keys real deal? You’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic expression of pure American blues over corn liquor at a Parchman Farm juke joint in 1928. Crossroads? The Devil may have sold them HIS soul under the midnight moon.

But that’s merely their STARTING point. On “Brothers,” Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney take you on nothing less than a journey through the entire history of the 20th Century American musical canon, shifting effortlessly between blues, sixties soul (both Northern and Southern), southern-fried rock-n-roll, gospel, and Nuggets-era garage rock.

Are these guys The Standells or are they Otis Rush and Little Walter? Are they Prince or Etta James or Screaming Jay Hawkins or “Emotional Rescue” era Mick Jagger (falsetto and all)? The reality is that they’re all of those things. And that’s just on the first three songs. By the time you’ve reached “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a sultry horn enfused retro rhapsody worthy of Burt Bacharach that is the penultimate track on the album, you realize that you’ve gone on a musical journey that spans form, geography, and the decades.

#2 – Arcade Fire

Over infectious, chant-along choruses, Arcade Fire grapple with a grand overarching theme on “The Suburbs”: the quest for authenticity by a generation whose entire upbringing is rooted in Suburbia, which they perceive as a socioeconomic contrivance suffused with inauthenticity. The album tackles existential questions worthy of “Bladerunner”: Is our sense of identity based on a fiction? Are our memories less authentic by virtue of their circumstance? Is our sense of nostalgia for our youth valid, or is it the inevitable result of a mass marketing scheme/ faux utopian materialist construct? And where does this all leave our sense of identity and quest for truth?

Or, as Win Butler intones on the album’s third track, “Modern Man”–“the clock is ticking, I’m a modern man… I was almost there, but they pulled me aside and said you’re going nowhere… maybe when you’re older, you will understand why you don’t feel right, why you can’t sleep at night…” But lest you fear that the band might let their musical exuberance be crushed under the sheer weight of their distopic agita, they take enough solace in the lessons they’ve learned in the “Suburban War” to greet the future with eagerness, if not optimism– “my mind is wide open and now I’m ready to start.”

As good as their recorded material is, they have to be experienced live for a full appreciation of their sonic power. Simply put, Arcade Fire is the best live band on the planet right now, with almost hypnotic sway over its crowds. The band builds to crescendo after throbbing crescendo with an almost religious urgency, swapping instruments and throwing themselves around the stage in ecstatic abandon, with the audience in tow.

The best of the rest:

3. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings “I Learned the Hard Way”

4. Robert Plant “Band of Joy”

5. LCD Soundsystem “This Is Happening”

6. The National “High Violet”

7. Best Coast “Crazy for You”

8. Band of Horses “Infinite Arms”

9. Gaslight Anthem “American Slang”

10. The Hold Steady “Heaven is Whenever”

My  five favorite songs of 2010:

The ongoing merits of the full-length album notwithstanding, sometimes you just need a bite-sized rock-n-roll morsel. Accordingly, here are the 2010 songs that made me hit “repeat” over and over again:

5. “Crossed Wires” by Superchunk. Within thirty seconds, this jerky, hyper-kinetic power pop gem from the North Carolina punk veterans and Merge Records founders (who wrote the book on indie rock street cred) lodges itself deep into the serotonin recesses of your brain and does the pogo.

4. “American Slang” by Gaslight Anthem.  Make fist. Pump it in the air. Repeat for the next 2:32.

3. “Howlin’ for You” by The Black Keys. The dirty soundtrack for a yet unwritten David Lynch film about the dark side of desire.

2. “Laredo” by Band of Horses. Sweet and lush.  High and lonesome. Tight and perfect.

1. “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo Green. I can’t believe this song never existed before. One listen, and it’s as though it’s always been there, ringing in your ears, smiling gamely and beckoning you to the dance floor.

-Erik Huey

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