Tuesday, December 14, 2010

One More Robot's 20 Best Albums of 2010

Musically it takes every decade a couple of years to settle into the trends that will ultimately define it, but as we attempted to get to grips with the noughties, 2010 soared stealthily with a healthy dose of great music being released weekly. The first complete year of One More Robot’s existence, we invited our music writers to select some of their favourite albums of the past twelve months. Most of them were cut by veterans of the previous decade, re-establishing their relevancy and laying down a “catch us if you can” marker to other bands. There were however, a sizeable amount of debut records to get excited about, and even a couple of warriors from way back in time showing their continuing passion for creating great music. All of which is spread over a wide variety of genres. In fact, the past year was the perfect mix of grit and gravy, and here are twenty of our favourites. Scope the list, read the blurbs but, most of all, listen to the music, because this is what 2010 sounded like.

Born Ruffians
Say It
(Warp/Paper Bag)

Say It retains all the trademark traits that were present on Born Ruffians' stellar debut Red, Yellow and Blue, like the sparse but effective drumming, singer Luke Lalondes chirpy vocals, and an overall feeling of playfulness and fun. But a more scaled back, lo-fi sound gives well crafted pop songs even more room to breathe, such as the confident opener 'Oh Man' and the stomping 'Ballad of Moose Bruce'. First single 'What To Say' is arguably the high point. Beginning slow and ominously, the song quietly blossoms into an uplifting sing-along anthem, and likewise, on Say It Born Ruffians are a band truly blossoming. Refining their sound yet retaining the urgency and catchiness that made their debut so rewarding, it solidifies their position as one of the most exciting young bands today. --Jesse Melia

Broken Social Scene
Forgiveness Rock Record
(Arts & Crafts)

Toronto indie-superstars Broken Social Scene start their second decade of existence with a huge bang. Forgiveness Rock Record is a sprawling, epic album, touching on the themes of betrayal, guilt, romance (both bad and good), redemption and, yes, forgiveness, that have marked their immensely varied and always intelligent pop music thus far. Lead track ‘World Sick’ is a microcosm of the album. It is an epic of rolling crescendos and ethereal vocals, resulting in nothing less than pop perfection. Through the cymbals crashes and chiming guitars, the ethos of the new and improved BSS shines through brightly: gone are the moments of contrition and tendency towards self-indulgence, gone are the deliberately obscure lyrics that obfuscate the meaning within. The new BSS are streamlined and efficient, yet they’ve lost none of the grandiose that defines their best moments. --Alex De Petro

Bun B
Trill O.G.
(Rap-a-Lot)

Trill O.G. split opinion, reigniting that old argument of whether a great album should be defined as a body of work that is sonically and thematically cohesive, or simply just a clutch of awesome songs. This is a record that definitely falls into the latter category. At times Bun even sounds like he is being lead by his various collaborators, as he desperately wanders the hip-hop landscape without his sadly deceased UGK partner Pimp C. For instance, closer 'It's Been A Pleasure' features Drake and could easily have been interchanged with Thank Me Later's final track. But there's not denying that Trill O.G. is a great set. Resembling an all star hip-hop playlist, Bun's ferocious flow is much admired, pulling his famous friends up to his level as they try to match his intensity. Ironically, the album's finest moment comes when he takes the mic solo, on the Steve Below produced one-two of 'Lights, Camera, Action' and 'I Git Down For Mine' that comes at its midpoint.--Dean Van Nguyen

Crocodiles
Sleep Forever
(Fat Possum)

Produced by Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, Crocodiles’ Sleep Forever is nothing short of a diary of dark thoughts, depression and deeply subdued rage. The opening lines, which introduce us into this world of hazy, electro and scintillating song themes, set us up for the rest of the albums down-and-out, toe tapping look on life; “Something in the way you crucify me/It makes me smile.” This comes straight from opening track 'Mirrors' which, along with 'Stoned to Death', 'Girl in Black' and, the closer/greatest song ever, 'All My Hate and My Hexes are For You', help make up a truly wonderful and endlessly interesting album. --Niamh King

Drake
Thank Me Later
(Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown)

Drake has had a hell of a year, but with all the glitz propelling his star, its easy to forget what made him take off in the first place. Thank Me Later, his debut album, has sold more than 1 million copies while gaining a considerable critical following. It’s gorgeous, chilly production builds upon the 808s and Heartbreak aesthetic, elevating space and atmosphere into formal aesthetic principles. The album’s expansive, matte-finish production serves to create the perfect backdrop to Drake’s ambiguous ambition. He’s one of the few young artists to grapple legitimately with the downside to fame and good fortune. His real-life tumult lends authenticity and gravity to what would be otherwise empty posturing. Ultimately, Thank Me Later is hip-hop yacht rock, glamorous yet jaded, running on the skittering thrill of how easy everything comes. --B. Michael Payne

Drive-By-Truckers
The Big To-Do
(ATO)

When Drive-by-Trucker’s co-founder Patterson Hood said that the their eight studio album would be both their most melodic and rockin' in years, it was hard to believe that he could deliver on both promises. But on The Big To-Do, the band strike the perfect balance of fist-pumping rock outs and gentler melodic tunes, simultaneously managing to have a lot more fun than anyone else this year. Put in simply: they're not only as good as their word, they surpass expectations! Bassist Shonna Tucker comes to the forefront more than on previous records, and her slower tunes do captivate, but DBT have always been best when rocking out and the riotous 'Birthday Boy' and 'Get Downtown', both penned by guitarist Mike Cooley, are both instant Trucker classics. --Ronan Hunt-Murphy

E-40
Revenue Retrievin': Day Shift/Revenue Retrievin': Night Shift
(Heavy on the Grind Ent./Jive)

It's good when a genius and statesman of a genre goes ahead and tries. On both Revenue Retrievin' albums (Day Shift and Night Shift) 40 water displayed the kind of creativity that put him at the head of the hip-hop game while simultaneously recalling the superhuman material that kept him there. Put the two records together and you've got almost 40 tracks, ranging from reflective tales of sadness to some of the hardest material we heard this year; the records run the sonic and lyrical gambit. A master of slinging almost martian-sounding slang around the toughest slaps, 40 Fonzerelli proves once again that when he does it right, he does it perfect. These records feature almost every single Bay Area rapper that matters (Huslah's rarely sounded better, high praise indeed) and some unbelievable beats courtesy of E40's son Droop-E (his effortless flip of Bjork is breathtaking). Put it all together and 40's livin' up to his maxim: “be about it, or be without it”. --Seán McTiernan

Flying Lotus
Cosmogramma
(Warp)

“Spacey electronic funk jazz mini-epics”. That was the best I could do when I challenged myself to nutshell LA native Flying Lotus’s new record. As awfully pretentious and gibberish-y as that sounds, trust me when I say Cosmogramma is one of the most captivating, cohesive and exciting records released all year. Tracks here surround virtuoso basslines with skittery beats and schizophrenic beeps and blips. Pulsing, distorted synths segue seamlessly into ambient string-drenched laments, that then somehow find their way to soulful beat-led tracks that Madlib would give his right arm for. It’s a record that moves at a blistering pace, with none of the 16 tracks rising far above the two minute mark. The variety of moods on this record blend so perfectly, and the whole experience becomes so immersive that when one of the most distinctive voices in rock, Thom Yorke, shows up about halfway through singing the refrain “I need to know you’re out there somewhere”, seemingly lost in the expanse of the album, it all just seems to fit so perfectly. Flying Lotus would be called an electronic producer, but it’s obvious a love for the more classical forms of music influence his work too, as the jazz and soul and string drenched numbers show. Cosmogramma is very much a product of the present and the future, with its heart stuck firmly and fondly in the past. --Stephen Rogers

Francis and The Lights
It'll Be Better
(Cantora)

The decade of excess it might have been, but the indie rock world spent so much of the noughties scraping the eighties' cannon for influence that little has been left to go around the next generation. But on their full lenght debut It'll Be Better, Francis and The Lights crafted a record that embraced the least tread ground of the decade that keeps on giving. Acts like Paul Simon, Hall & Oats and even Barry Manilow can be heard all over the eight tracks, which utilise light synths and nimble guitar licks to form the light beds on which the pop melodies are gently placed. These melodies are undoubtedly catchy, but the spooky production and Francis' high pitched vocals are almost contradictory, daring the listener to return for repeat listens to unlock each song's charm. Oddly though, opener and stand-out track 'It'll Be Better' is something of a red herring. A tender, stripped down ballad, Francis croons impressivly over the woody drum beat and tuneless guitar. --Dean Van Nguyen

Ikonika
Contact, Love, Want, Have
(Hyperdub)

Ikonika is probably more influenced by her time as a death metal drummer and the video games of her youth than her UK funky compatriots. This doesn't really matter though, as what she's doing to sound is all her own. Floating through genre and structures with amazing grace, Ikonika's songs cross pixelated valleys and sometimes construct some of their own. Abandoning the label 'Dubstep', which is either now over-incestuous chin-stroking or jackhammer novelty-music, Ikonika just makes bass-heavy and beautiful music. Endlessly creative with sound and always willing to take it different places, she's one of the best around at the moment. If there's a hero out there, this isn't his theme music. If there's a heaven, this isn't playing on the speakers. This music is too honest for rubbish like that. This is just beautiful noise, made for dancing, perfected for thought. --Seán McTiernan

Joanna Newsom
Have One on Me
(Drag City)

For her third record, Joanna Newsom created a piece of high art. And like a lot of art, Have One On Me is easier to dissect than to enjoy. Its atmosphere is strangulated and esoteric-sounding because of the precise instrumentation and production. And rather than emphasize structure, rhythm, or melody, the songs composing the album seem concerned only with sustaining their own in-built logic and emotional structure. It's this manic attention to detail that ultimately captivates the listener and wrests the album from the clutches of cerebral self-absorption. For a triple album centered on the private life of a young, Californian woman, Have One On Me presents itself as a captivating listen. With its lavish score and complex lyrics, the listener becomes easily lost in its details. But the album is a map to the center of its creator’s heart. --B. Michael Payne

Justin Townes Earle
Harlem River Blues
(Bloodshot)

2010 was a strange year for Justin Townes Earle. In May, he appeared alongside father Steve on David Simon's hit show Treme (follow-up to The Wire), before being arrested for battery and public drunkenness in September. Between these dates, however, he released his best album to date. Undoubtedly prolific, it's his third record in as many years, but rather than suffering from burnout, Earle only seems to get better which each release. Harlem River Blues is remarkably consistent considering his seemingly filter-less output. Tracks like 'Christchurch Woman' and 'Rogers Park' tread the same ground as classic Americana, with their earthy instrumentation, and Earle's mesmerizing vocals. Taken as an entire set however, and Harlem River Blues easily stand alongside even the best of his dad's work. --Ronan Hunt-Murphy

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

An album of the year not only in the sense that the music is absolutely incredible, but that it’s a record that seems to have been trickling out all year long. Every morsel – music, rumours, tantalising info from collaborators - hinting more and more at the genius that Yeezy was concocting in a sunny Honolulu studio in preparation for return from his self-imposed exile. Kanye had taken some well deserved bashing towards the end of 2009, so despite being lauded as one of the greatest talents in hip-hop for the bulk of the past decade; he knew he had a lot to prove. The release of lead single 'POWER' early in the year announced the comeback of Mr. West in brilliantly thunderous fashion, and a collective sigh of relief departed those still invested in the artistic integrity of one of pops great talents. Kanye went terribly modern, announcing the G.O.O.D. Friday releases in August. These were free downloads of tracks he’d been working on with a variety of big names, the quality of which had us all wondering what he could be possibly holding back to release on his upcoming new album. Nothing could have prepared us for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy however. Even after the leaks and singles we’d heard and the G.O.O.D. Friday tracks that ended up making the record, Yeezy assembled a set of tracks that any rapper, producer, or musician of any persuasion would be envious of. From heartbreaking confessional (‘Runaway’), to straight up beats and rhymes with dazzling guest talent (‘Monster’, ‘So Appalled’), and uplifting epics (‘All of The Lights’, ‘Lost in the World’) this was a record like no other in 2010. Kanye being Kanye though, I know he’ll only try to better it next time, and I can’t wait. --Stephen Rogers

Shad
TSOL

(Black Box Recordings)

The second full-length release from Canadian rapper Shad, TSOL build upon his fine 2008 album The Old Prince but refines the methodical and determined style that has become his trademark. Despite treading similar ground, it’s clear that Shad has gained valuable experience since his last release. His flow has improved, his rhymes becoming tighter and his words, more thought-provoking. Lyrics weave in-and-out of metaphors and similes while the instrumentation and sampling recalls nineties English hip-hop. In a fine year for hip-hop, TSOL stands apart as a record that is both referential and innovative. The sound and imagination of London, England has found a new home in London, Ontario. --Luke Maxwell

Sleigh Bells
Treats
(Mom + Pop/N.E.E.T.)

Sleigh Bells seemed like they would be another one-hit blog wonder. Their 2009 song sensation ‘Crown on the Ground’ thrilled many in diverse ways. Its purposeful execution of the listener’s eardrums seemed somewhat sinister until you realize that the song’s catchiness is the reason why you’ve turned the volume up to full-blast. It was a distant prospect to think that Sleigh Bells could sustain that high level of tuneful noise across a full-length release. Treats, of course, shows the band was more than capable to produce exactly thirty-two minutes of perfect pop noise. It’s sui generis approach to pop music makes you wonder why no one else had ever thought to marry girl group vocals with crushing percussion and laser beam guitar riffs. It all sounds so immediately right that it makes everything else sound wrong. --B. Michael Payne

The Soft Pack
The Soft Pack
(Kemado)

The only record of the year within the magazine's pages to receive the coveted One More Robot Five Star rating, The Soft Pack's debut album embraces old-fashioned, garage rock for inspiration, with its speedy riffs, snappy drumming and tight-instrumentation. At their best the San Diego four piece recall the sound of The Replacements or even The Strokes, but rather than regurgitating their idols, the band sounds more like the natural progression. Clocking in at a taut 32 minutes, the album itself is wall to wall gems, rolicking along with the giddy energy of a classic debut record. Rarely has such raw talent and youthful exuberance been bottled so skilfully. --Dean Van Nguyen

Spoon
Transference
(Merge)

Spoon have been quietly building their reputation for well over a decade now. Releasing every album to rapturous fanfare from both their fans and critics alike, one would fear that they would become complacent and lose some of their bite this far into their career. Not so. Transference is a gritty, raw album that solidifies Spoon's position as indie rock demigods. Britt Daniels voice can go from tender to throat shredding. It has sharp, choppy guitar playing coupled with fat, teeth rattling bass. 'Written In Reverse' is an amalgamation of all the albums best qualities. Its great, nervy piano drives the song through a desolate wasteland of shattered relationships. The album has something for every Spoon fan. They have the vitality of a newly formed band, yet they retain their well honed sound that has won them over so many fans and is sure to win over many more. --Jesse Melia

Tame Impala
Innerspeaker
(Modular)

Australia has become something of haven for kids who were first inspired to pick up a guitar by their parents' record collections. The rake of sixties and seventies revivalists to emerge down under have been terribly mixed in quality, with few being executed as astutely as Tame Impala. Their glorious debut album leans heavily on late sixties/early seventies psych rock, but don’t let that put you off. Rather than simply dousing each track with reverb to force that retro feel, the band’s sound feels more organic. The pounding drums, sharp guitar lines, and leader Kevin Parker’s Lennon-esque vocals from a solid base, but the intelligent synth breaks and hypnotic melodies sells the experience. There are so many highlights, but Innerspeaker is an album greater than the sum of its parts, as each track naturally flows into the next, without any obvious dip in quality. Wear their influences on their sleeves they might, Tame Impala don't so much sound like any one particular band, but as a free spirit that could have dropped out of the decade that defined that expression. --Dean Van Nguyen

Titus Andronicus
The Monitor
(XL)

From Bruce Springsteen to Frank Sinatra, Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons to The Sugarhill gang, New Jersey has left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern music. Titus Andronicus are a band born in the image of all of these classic artists, who create angry, powerful rock music that transcends geographic location. The Monitor is their attempt at a concept album. It's a sprawling and powerful treatise on the American Civil War. Opening track ‘A More Perfect Union’ is the perfect example of their innovative and potent brand of hearty, homeland rock'n'roll, which kicks off with a segment of an Abraham Lincoln speech that sets the tone for the album as a whole. Complex themes aside, this is a real, old-school rocking album that's just as much about the music as the words.--Alex De Petro

Vampire Weekend
Contra
(XL)

Ezra Koenig and his Ivy-League buddies return for another round of African-inspired pop music on Contra, an admirable sophomore effort from an exciting band. Where their debut, Vampire Weekend, is restricted, Contra is expansive: from the rolling xylo-percussion introduction that leads into chamber-pop strings which are strangely at home in the broad plains of the savannah on ‘Horchata’ to Koenig’s faux-Paul Simon drawl on ‘White Sky’, everything here speaks of a broadening, both in musical freedom and instrumental awareness. Of course, it’s not as fresh hearing these juxtapositions and idiosyncrasies the second time around, but perhaps it’s best to view Contra as a companion album to Vampire Weekend rather than a direct sequel.--Alex De Petro

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