Dance Dance Revolution, Pop Triumphs, Great Albums and The Return of Old Friends: My Favourite Records of 2010

It’s the dawn of a new decade and the time in which the previous decade becomes gradually ‘retro’ and slips into ‘Greatest Hits’ records and compilation discs. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened to 2009 yet; however, when it does… Damn, I’ll feel old.

2010 musically, seemed sort of a greatest hits compilation in itself; there was no new groundbreaking sound or genre busting out the gates, but both artists and genres returned like supposedly dead characters from soap operas. Remember in the early stages of the 2000’s when DJs were on the top 40? Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method, the Chemical Brothers, Groove Armada, DaRude… who thought we’d see that happen ever again? And remember when pop music was a solid, catchy effort that TRIED to make a difference and maintain its virginal innocence (mixed with a bit of sex kitten flirtatiousness), all the while prompting tweens and guilty adults everywhere to sing their little hearts out as bubblegum songs played on the radio and on ipods and even, dare I say it, CD players? Enter Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. And of course, this was the year of… the comeback; the solo effort; the reunion record; the plucked-from-seeming-obscurity time to shine.

It is for these reasons that 2010 produced some of the best records in the last little while. Maybe even the best of the decade 😉 The following is just some of the noteworthy epic-ness that was released at the dawn of a new era…

Outstanding Dance Records

Kylie Minogue – Aphrodite. Kylie Minogue has been gracing magazine covers and record store shelves since she did the locomotion in the 1980s. And since then, she’s been a mysterious indie queen, a disco dolly, and she spearheaded the dance music/Euro pop invasion of the early 2000’s, with her irresistibly catchy, sexy “Fever” which was, up until now, her best record EVER – so great in fact, that North America was finally able to bring Ms. Minogue back onto the charts and embrace her as the awesome dance diva that she is. Following the global phenomenon that was ‘Can’t Get You Outta My Head’, Kylie fell ill, got better, and released another great record which was sadly just a blip on North America’s bloated radar. A few years later, here is “Aphrodite” and it is even BETTER than “Fever” and “X” put together; it’s bold, embedded with somehow feminist flare, there is a cleanliness to the eroticism, and a playfulness to the attitude, and most importantly, it forces you to want to bust a Goddamn move all freaking night, or at the very least, make sexy faces at the gym or strut to work with your head high in the air, giving icy stares to all the men you pass… and what more do you want from a dance record, really? Sure – Kylie is a whole lot of image, a whole lot of smoke, mirrors and video screens, a lot of scant costumes and gay male dancers and extravagance that hides her baby-soft auto tuned voice and her airbrushed face. But… so what? Dance music is back, and no record proves that more than the self-proclaimed fierce, mighty Kylie Minogue, using her walk on a gold-painted street… best dance record of the year.

Chromeo – Business Casual. If you have a look at the gents of Chromeo, you see a couple of styled-up, well-groomed hipsters and you don’t expect sick grooves and DJ saavy to come out of them at all. And then you hear “Business Casual” and the swagger is… well, ridiculous. While there is still something charmingly independent and homegrown about Chromeo, their latest record is a whirlwind of Vaudeville, Broadway, rock, pop and disco. Think The Bee Gees, if they were on a serious crack binge at Studio 54 and while there, had a child with “I Miss You”-era Rolling Stones. The itunes version of the record comes complete with an almost overwhelming barrage of awesome remixes of some of the record’s best songs like “Don’t Turn the Lights On” and “Night by Night”. I don’t normally do the whole remix thing, but there is a whole lot of awesome to be had on these ones. Chromeo has been on the scene for a short while and have in that time, produced some MAYJAH dance-rock gems; they mean business, and I hope they stick around and continue to make the people move. I need them to keep proving dance music’s legitimacy. Some people don’t believe me on this one.

Jamiroquai – Rock Dust Light Star. Another artist who I feel is fully-loaded with sex, strut and flavor, is the ever-present though rarely-recognized Jamiroquai. JayKay and the Funky Bunch have been on the scene for eons, churning out one piece of fantastic funk/rock after another, rarely recognized outside their native UK, and outside their circle of dancers, club kids and leisure suit-wearing party goers. But I think there’s more to Jamiroquai than meets the eye, really; disguised cleverly as a throwaway pop romp group, Jamiroquai’s music extends far beyond rec room drunk fests. There’s a kind of pathos and urgency in the lyrics that demonstrate to me, a need for change, a voice and certainly, witticisms and poetics; “Love is war and war is never gonna be the answer” is one of many clever lines on this record. Jay Kay’s smooth, perfect falsetto is in itself an instrument, one which is off-kilter and a wee bit strange, and melds with precision, intimacy and relateability that lies beneath this ‘move’ music. When dance music ventures out of its own environment – the club, the dance, the rave, the house party overseas – and uses wit, intensity, flavor and catchiness to survive out there in the real world – it’s a record that has staying power, personal success and satisfaction.

Pop Goes Amazing

Taylor Swift – Speak Now. Country crossovers are typically beloved individuals who have that down-home best friend charm and even a bit of camera-winking sexuality, combined with the ability to pump out songs that are played by more than just at-home housewives, new moms and cowboys and cowgirls who live against a backdrop of fields, ranches, picket fences and southern accents. Taylor Swift is sort of the epitome of all those things and more; she is firstly, an incredibly young woman, who does not come from ‘cowboy country’ roots, who cites major art players like Bon Iver as influences, but also gives credit to Def Lepperd of all bands, who is pretty and possesses a friendly, approachable brand of female sexuality, and most interestingly and importantly, is beloved by almost every single person on the planet. When you look closely at Taylor Swift, you think ‘she could be my very best friend’ and at times when you (well… when I) listen to her records, I easily believe this to be so; she sings of villains (‘Mean’, ‘Better than Revenge’, ‘Dear John’) and you hate them with as much passion as she does; she sings of first loves and last loves (‘Enchanted’, ‘Last Kiss’ respectively) and you are excited for her, then saddened for her; she sings of wedding-crashing on the record’s title track and you’re rooting for her, laughing when she laughs, and metaphorically spitting at the song’s “wrong girl”. The songs are as cute and charming as the talented girl behind them. What I love about Swift is that she speaks accurately to the experiences of being in one’s twenties, particularly on ‘Never Grow Up’, a song in which fears of growing old and the vulnerabilities of finding yourself alone and full of nostalgia all of a sudden, are so accurately and sympathetically discussed, it seems that your own experiences have been somehow written of; but they’re Taylor’s too – or at least, she convinces us of this with ease and emotion – and this is just another reason to absolutely adore her.

Joshua Radin – The Rock and the Tide. Maybe I’m going out a limb here by calling this record out as particularly significant and memorable and iconic to the year 2010. Maybe it’s just me – kind of like when you hear someone call your name and you glance around to see who said it and it was no one you know or recognize; all your imagination, really. I don’t know… sure, Radin isn’t a mega-lyricist, mega-musician, or a mega-star really… certainly, his records and demeanor are so small, it seems odd to insinuate that his latest effort has made a splash at all. It’s gentile, cute, soft, fuzzy, warm and sweet above all, and I think its simplicity and effectiveness lie in these ‘nice’ qualities… “Great record”? Nah, not really… Radin’s produced better work than ‘Rock’. But like all of his records, this is one that begs you to love it; and if you listen to “I Think I’ll Go Inside” you just may.

Reunion Party

David Gray – Foundling. Hey… didn’t he JUST release a record in 2009? It came out on the cusp of the fall, just short of a year before this one? And wasn’t it pretty darn good while still not quite holding a candle to his past records which evoke a sense of love, loss and wisdom that simply cannot – CANNOT – be touched? Yes… Gray released ‘Draw the Line’ very very recently and when I heard of this upcoming double record featuring a collection of outtakes and demos, I felt skeptical and wary. However, no need. Nope. ‘Foundling’ is just divine… it has a beauty and romanticism that is as perfect as these two qualities can reach in a record… David Gray is a pure Byronic, a provocateur of utmost, undying, traditional romance. And he expresses these through traditional rhyme schemes, poetic imagery and on this record, a mysticism that has yet to be fully explored by Gray. Hearing a song like the title track however, rekindles one’s belief in the fantastical, the ethereal, and aspects of the traditional legend.

Robyn – Body Talk. Typically when some dance artist or popstar has hits in the early-mid 90s and they’re vamped up with slick pop production and ample amounts of leather panted videos, they fade away and you don’t really expect to see them again. Robyn re-entered the music scene with the odds madly stacked against her. She took non-believers though, and turned them into pure dance music gold. The last few years have been good for her and with this catchy, manic fast-paced, slick smart attitude-filled record, I can only hope in the next few years we see even more from the underrated, under-estimated “Show Me Love” diva.

Neil Young – Le Noise. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Words to live by, words many many rock stars and young people (most notably, Kurt Cobain, who was both –and will remain that way forever) have taken to heart and placed into hearty practice. Young has done everything, from drive to California in a hearse, to making a synth record, to making a rockabilly record. He’s always exploring new musical landscapes and either searching for, or uncovering, hidden truths about the nature of war, life, love, and loneliness. On this, his latest effort (and it has been a while) Young evokes a new incarnation that speaks with a slow, careful wisdom. The songs on the record are simple and dirty (reverb and un-produced shredding). Lyrically, they’re not so tough and meaty and yet, only Young could have written and carried off a song like “Walk With Me” or “Love and War”. Nobody else quite has the resume and stature he does, nobody else would dare to talk such huge artistic risks. The lyrics are like nursery rhymes but the music plays out like the rawest, meanest, edgiest folk rock you’ve heard in ages.

Eels – End Times. This was a record I almost forgot to include in the list, as it was released just at the very beginning of ’10. So much so, I almost forgot it WAS released in 2010. However, it is outstanding; Eels have in the past been known for quirky songs like “Birds” and pensive songs like “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”; here, these two strengths are combined into moments of clarity and purity that are almost cute, and moments that are as sad and reflective as anything the band has ever thought up. This is a divorce record, and by far one of the best ones I’ve heard; its strength lies in very shallowly-articulated arrangements and vocals interpreting depressing and lonely lines that cut to the bone.

Just Awesome in General

The Tallest Man on Earth – Wild Hunt. I was only very recently introduced to the Tallest Man on Earth (moniker of folk singer Kristian Matsson), through a cover that Matsson had done of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’. Oh, I had heard of the Tallest Man on Earth – but never explored his music prior to this month. Well… better late than never. His passionate, aching vocals could make a children’s song seem like you were trapped in a fog of despair and desperation. He speaks of love the way some people scream while they lay bleeding on the sidewalk. Wild Hunt was named by itunes as one of the best records of 2010. I second the motion; it is a perfect, sad, destroying record that makes you want to partake in the beauty of sadness rather than retreat from it.

Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can. When I first heard Marling’s sophomore, I could (or can) scarcely believe she’s actually younger than me. At 20 years of age, this prodigy speaks like someone 75 years her senior. She has a wisened spirit of Americana (despite being from the U.K.) that lifts her music into insane realms of reachable poltergeists and other fantastical things. Marling has made one of the best folk/blues records of the last ten years, let alone in 2010. She can truly compete with her original Newport lineup contemporaries, and I expect GREATNESS from her shortly.

Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void. While they were also listed under one of my favourite concerts of 2010, Blitzen Trapper makes the album list too— why? Because not just any band can channel both Queen and very traditional Americana simultaneously- evoking the baddest-ass glam rock and still keeping with the down-home banjos and drifting melodies that are part of a Southern charm repertoire. The title track is definitely one of the highlights and unveils a new side and uniqueness of the band that I hadn’t heard prior to this record. This record also boasts the inclusion of two of the most essential songs of 2010 for me, “Evening Star” and “Sadie”; toss those in with “Trees” featuring fellow acid-folk colleague Alela Diane and this record is irreplaceable.

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals – Cardinals III/IV. Alright, so I’m still waiting for the ever-promised Ryan Adams self-released box set that has been touted as a possibility by Adams himself in several interviews. That has yet to happen but instead, late this year Ryan Adams fans were blessed with this, Adams’ second collection of demos since Demolition wayyy back in the day. Perhaps because Ryan Adams’ supposedly “fun” throwaway metal concept record Orion was by far one of the biggest disappointments of 2010 (though it’s pretty and shiny and fetches a high price on ebay), I was wary of this collection; double albums by people who tend not to take themselves as seriously anymore tend to wander away from the core requirements of a good record which in my eyes are: consistency, lyricism, and quality melodies. Luckily for me, III/IV has all three of these things (the former is a little looser in meeting the criteria than the latter). It delivers what it promises; an oddball collection of demos that were recorded in between releases over the span of a few years – some are serious, some are not (in Numbers, aside from the pretty, soaring jam sessions in between verses for example, are ridiculous cries of “we’re fucked! We’re fucked!”; Orion is channeled a touch on the faux-metal tune, Icebreaker). However, it is all very exciting, alluring and I find each time I play the record I find something new and interesting to glean from it. By far the best track of the album is Users; it is a rough-and-tumble straight straight pop/rock catchy bouncy sonic journey into utmost listening pleasure and it might be one of my favourite Adams up-tempo songs ever. This is one of my favourite records of 2010 despite its failure to recapture the sheer genius and quality of records as early as Heartbreaker and Gold, and as late as Cold Roses and Jacksonville City nights. Adams’ career is rocky and full of drama, BIG hits and misfires, sobriety and addiction and hilarious answering machine messages to certain Chicago journalists, sadness, happiness and hilarity; he is well-hated by music fans and reporters alike, and is widely regarded as a joke; however one thing you can say about Adams if you do choose to take this road of criticism (I don’t), is that he’s never, ever been boring, whether at his best, or worst. It would seem he makes music for himself, and inserts the jokes, references, stories, melodies and lines that he finds relevant. It’s deliciously punk; and I love him for that.

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