UPDATE: I have debated doing this before but in 17 years I've never done it ... until now. I have added a late-breaking nominee to the Album of the Year list, a record that was released just three days before this list was posted. (Hint: It's nominee No. 3.)
I don't always say this, but I love when I'm able to: It's been a terrific year for music. So instead of rambling on by way of an intro, let's get straight to the five nominees for RIB's 2010 Album of the Year (listed "alphabetically" as they appear on iTunes):
Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs
If you know me well, you've probably heard me speak about seeing R.E.M.'s video for What's The Frequency, Kenneth? for the first time. The video, in a nutshell: A newly bald Michael Stipe makes love to a microphone stand while his band rocks out in front of what is eventually revealed to be a suburban home, projected onto a giant screen.
I appreciated the irony of a band selling its music to suburban kids longing to be just like them, beaming videos into our homes just as many of us were desperately trying to get the hell out.
Still, that was just a four-minute video, and while a lot of bands have written odes to suburbia in various forms, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs is instant canon. It's a deep, nuanced look at growing up in the 'burbs that is both critical and sentimental, the work of a new generation coming into its own, one you can easily imagine emerging from the house in the Kenneth video.
The Montreal rock band has cornered the market on songs about growing up -- Pitchfork suggests a drinking game based on how many times Win Butler sings the word "kids" on this record -- though it's a tad less romantic than it is at times on their debut Funeral. The Suburbs is sometimes adoring, sometimes angry -- and almost always transcendent.
Because growing up is part joy, part pain, part apathy, my first nominee is both a savage takedown and a loving ode. On the album's best song, Sprawl II, Regine Chassagne laments strip malls as far as the eye can see over one of the most infectious, Blondie-like beats you'll hear on an indie rock record. And that's just as it should be.
Broken Social Scene -- Forgiveness Rock Record
Four of the five nominees this year achieve greatness either as tomes on teenage angst, twilight drives into the night, rolls in summer lawns, or welcome disappearances into the woods. The fifth one, Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record, has a wider, in some instances more overtly political scope, one a bit harder to pin down. Still, it's just as much a nominee for this basic reason: It freakin' rocks.
Don't get me wrong, Broken Social Scene's latest by no means lacks depth. There is a heck of lot to absorb here ("forgiveness" being the ostensible theme); like the band itself, the record is a conglomeration of a lot of different participants and ideas, a mix tape that isn't actually a mix tape. Chase Scene is both a thrilling and nerve-wracking promise to fight for one's life (especially jarring after what seems to be its moral opposite in the opening track, World Sick). Sentimental X's is a melancholy ode from "a friend you used to call" who's resigned to an "off and on" love. Ungrateful Little Father is either about deadbeat dads -- or Steve Jobs ("Ungrateful little motherfuck, built you up a brand new breakthrough device").
Still, for me, the record's highlights, though by no means bubblegum pop, are songs I'd play in the car when I wanted to tap on the steering wheel. World Sick is not an uplifting song; lyrically, it's quite the opposite. Yet I found myself singing "I get world sick, every time I take a stand" as if it were a proclamation instead of an admission. Along the exact same lines, Texico B*****s is clearly about what it's about (change the "i" to an "a"), yet it's also a misogynistic breakup song -- with a fantastic beat -- if you want it to be.
Which leads me to my favorite song on Forgiveness Rock Record. Meet Me In The Basement is a tour de force, the opening track on my Best of 2010 mix. But guess what? For a guy who lives and dies on lyrics, Meet Me In The Basement is an instrumental.
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
You can take my total apathy toward rap and hip hop as a sign that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about when I call Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a landmark record.
Or you can believe me doubly -- since I never would have believed myself had I seen this nomination even a couple weeks ago.
West is an arrogant, self-centered, foulmouthed sonofabitch, which is part of the reason this record is so motherfucking brilliant.
Not only does his bravado provide the theme of the record -- basically the soundtrack to his own superhero existence -- but only that same extraordinary ego could have driven him to attempt to make a record as ambitious as this one. He's made his share of references to Michael Jackson over the years -- there's more than one on this record, and the video for Runaway (filmed in Prague!) was inspired by Thriller --- and, no matter how many times he may deny having called himself the new King of Pop in the wake of MJ's death, well ... this record speaks for itself.
Laura Veirs -- July Flame
As I emailed a buddy recently, I have an intolerable crush on Laura Veirs. But although I've subsequently seen her live and met her briefly, her looks have nothing to do with it; I fell in deep like, sight unseen, the first time through July Flame and my adoration for this album has maintained a more-than-steady burn ever since.
According to iTunes, I Can See Your Tracks is my most-played song of 2010 -- an astounding 41 spins at press time, significantly more than the runner-up -- and it's more than worthy. On the surface, it's a simple folk song expertly played and sung; in reality, it's a heartbreaking song about longing.
In a similar vein, the entire record, start to finish, is filled with simple pleasures, expertly crafted whether they be joyful, sad, or somewhere in-between -- a chest full of treasures with little rival since the heyday of The Innocence Mission. (And if you know me, you know that's quite a compliment.)
Carol Kaye is a fan's tribute to a venerable session musician I might never have Googled otherwise. Life Is Good is about dancing to a band playing with divine fire -- and knowing those around you are feeling the same thing you are. Make Something Good is a simple closing prayer from creator to Creator. And did you know a July flame is a kind of peach?
Shearwater -- The Golden Archipelago
The first time I heard The Golden Archipelago, I was sitting on the deck of a ferry boat headed from Phuket to the island of Ko Phi Phi in southern Thailand. The album cover, too small to completely make out on my iPhone screen in the blinding sunlight, seemed a carbon copy of the view I had across the sea.
Little did I know I was squinting at a photo of Bannerman's Island, which I've passed hundreds of times on the Metro-North train from Poughkeepsie.
What I thought at the time was the perfect metaphor for this album -- new, mysterious horizons set to Jonathan Meiburg's declaration, "You are running from a rising tide, you are castawaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyys!" -- turned out to be a whole lot closer to home.
That's always been Shearwater's strength. On Rook, the band's last record, which won Album of the Year in 2008, there's a song about the death of an undersea leviathan that somehow brings you back to the squid and the whale in midtown Manhattan. On The Golden Archipelago, there's … well, take your pick. Meridian is a long drive into the evening. Hidden Lakes is the icy snowfall of Thor Harris and Kim Burke playing the bells in tandem. And, last but not least, False Sentinel is a plucked string that puts you in a lighthouse on a rainy night, high above the waves, somewhere you're sure you've been before.
The Tallest Man on Earth -- The Wild Hunt
Kristian Matsson is much closer to five feet tall than six, but I've never seen a man and a guitar fill a concert hall the way he did at Webster Hall this year. The Tallest Man on Earth, alone on stage, inspired a packed room to crow along to Love Is All, his and their "oh-oh oh-oh"s putting exclamation points on the best anti-love song of 2010 (with apologies to The Magnetic Fields' You Must Be Out of Your Mind).
Matsson can fill a record, too, as he does on The Wild Hunt. The title track is an anthem for travelers of all kinds. King of Spain is the wind through your hair, feeling on top of the world. Like The Wheel is a prayer for understanding and strength. Burden of Tomorrow is about banishing your demons for love.
I have to admit, my interest in The Tallest Man on Earth was in its infancy that night at Webster Hall, enough so that I found the audience's more than typical excitement prior to the show a bit odd.
But the fever built as he took the stage, a man with a guitar, and pretty soon, I was a believer, too.
Ane Brun -- Sketches
Antony & The Johnsons -- Swanlights
Beach House -- Teen Dream
Belle & Sebastian -- Write About Love
Best Coast -- Crazy For You
Crystal Castles -- Crystal Castles (II)
Damien Jurado -- Saint Bartlett
Horse Feathers -- Thistled Spring
The Innocence Mission -- My Room In The Trees
Jonsi -- Go
The Morning Benders -- Big Echo
The National -- High Violet
Neil Young -- Le Noise
Peter Gabriel -- Scratch My Back
Rogue Wave -- Permalight
She & Him -- Volume Two
Sun Kil Moon -- Admiral Fell Promises
Tired Pony -- The Place We Ran From
Warpaint -- The Fool
Wolf Parade -- Expo 86