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Penn’s Best Music of 2010

December 9, 2010

Originally posted on

It’s December, so ’tis the season for the most hallowed of traditions, rating the music we’ve been listening to for the past 11 months, then bitching about everyone’s choices but your own. No doubt, depending on the reader, the picks will be regarded as too mainstream, too obscure, or just dumb.

Among other year-end lists there seemed to be more consensus among the entries, and fewer obscure picks than in years past. this could just be that familiar bands were putting out the best music, or the critical set and their readership are getting more savvy during the age of free music and shared information. Either way, we are feeling a little better about not including two-piece Tejano Hardcore bands from Silverlake and Williamsburg on this list. Feel free to include your pics in the list, but try not to hurt our feelings. Just kidding. Hurt ’em.

10. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

While it’s easy to see why a sprawling concept album about a Civil War ship from a New Jersey rock band would be a critical darling, it’s surprising to listen to that album and find exactly how engaging and accessible it is. The Monitor is not a fast-paced album as most songs run about 6-8 minutes, but the cohesion of songs demonstrates that TA stick to their point, and do so with songs that run from painfully slow and deliberate to the abrasive pop that that erupted from their previous effort, The Airing of Grievances.

9. Robyn – Body Talk

There’s pop music, then there’s Top-40 “Why are my ears-bleeding?” music that we have come to accept as pop. For 14 years, Robyn has made this distinction clear by turning out songs that are catchy, danceable, without sounding like they were written with the lowest common denominator in mind. At 31, she can crank out songs with cliched titles like “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” yet still make you believe that she means it. If, five years ago, you would have told me that Robyn, Kelly Clarkson, and Kanye West would restore my faith in pop, I would have punched you. But here we are.

8. A Place to Bury Strangers – Exploding Head

The overdriven tone of their past albums remains intact with Exploding Head, but APTBS adopt a more accessible sesnibility by putting the lead vocals in the forefront of their sound, as opposed to the muddled lyrics they presented on their last self-titled initial effort. The opening track “It is Nothing” doesn’t tap the listener on the shoulder to remind them of the band’s identity, but rather smacks them with a folding chair. Urgent guitars still guide the band’s sound, but their placement against even more notably new-wave vocals shows that anyone who had deemed this band as too noisy or heavy should probably give Exploding Head a listen before making a final ruling.

7. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Leftfoot…Son of Chico Dusty

Often, too much of a premium is placed on innovation in the music world. Fortunately, Big Boi got most of his need for innovation exorcised during his work with Outkast, and now is simply focusing on being the best MC with the tightest beats in hip hop. Singles like “Shutterbugg” are quintessentially Big Boi. While they don’t raise the bar for anyone else in the game, after a listen to “Ain’t No DJ,” it’s clear that he doesn’t need to worry about his competition, cause he’s playing his own game.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Damn you, Kanye. Why can’t I just hate you? You act like the biggest jackass for 99% of your very public life then you crank out a performance on MBDTF that shows how dynamic the genre of hip hop can be if you lose sense of convention. Following the strangely myopic “808’s and Heartbreak”, Kanye swings the pendulum in the other direction to create an album in which the only common thread is success. And just because he can, Kanye breaks out a nine-minute flow for “Never See Me Again” over an infectious piano melody and makes us completely forget that we hate autotune. Now that’s impressive.

5. Los Campesinos – Romance Is Boring

Romance Is Boring pulls double duty showing how the band has grown both in the tone of their lyrics and their composition, while still demonstrating that they haven’t yet found themselves where they’re going to end up. The title track and “Straight in at 101” are perhaps the best representations of what the band is capable of with their instrumentation. The complex arrangements are marvelous on some of the more ambitious songs in the repertoire, but occasional convolutes the message that Los Campesinos put forth. Now that they have proven artful in their arrangements, one is left with the feeling that a minimalistic approach to their more earnest tracks would add even more weight to Gareth Campesinos’ dazzling songwriting.

4. Black Keys – Brothers

Whether or not the Black Keys have done something truly special with their latest release, or simply got to capture a bigger audience isn’t entirely clear. With only two pieces, it’s hard to find a marked departure from their earlier efforts, which isn’t a value judgement, but rather a point of interest. It’s probably not a coincidence that their best and most popular tracks (like “Tighten Up) are the ones that stay truest to the formula, as their game has been the slickest elevation of muddy blues-rock. It continues to work for them, as their reluctance to step away from their bread and butter is more than counteracted by the introduction of new effects and tighter production that allows the Black Keys to be the best version of themselves.

3. Frightened Rabbit – Winter Mixed Cocktails

What is most remarkable about so many somber bands is their ability to stay singularly somber without wavering. Upbeat bands often have their dark moments, but bands like Frightened Rabbit sing like every day is to be met with exasperation and defeat. The worst (best) part of that mantra is the fact that Frightened Rabbit can take an album like The Winter of Mixed Drinks and turn it into a portrait of angst worthy of Thomas Mann.

2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

Bifurcating the heavy hearts bared in the first and third entries, LCD Soundsystem (read: James Murphy) takes pains to ensure not that everyone is alone, but rather that everyone is together, so let’s fucking dance. He’s not the first person to take this stance, but, following This Is Happening straddles the absurdity of “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” and the disarming sincerity of “All My Friends” to create an album that is absurdly honest. Ok, “Drunk Girls” might just be absurd. But to focus on that is to miss the point. LCD’s great truth has always been the surface and the beats. Murphy is becoming the Godfather of dance music, and from 3:00 to 3:15 on “Dance Yrself Clean”, it’s easy to see why.

1. The National – High Violet

Having abandoned much of the restraint that kept “Boxer” one of the most cohesive albums of the decade, The National have rewritten their formula, focusing their melancholy on legitimate pop songs like “Bloodbuzz, Ohio” while showing they can still ease back into their old act with “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.” The National should find themselves teetering on the edge of stardom with their next album, but if the past is any indication, they will continue to sell their brand of dramatic orchestration and see if the masses swallow it. If not, they can take comfort in knowing that their previous two LP’s grew into “High Violet.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 1:14 pm

    i’m expecting a CD for Christmas. (with Artwork)

    • penncollins permalink
      December 10, 2010 2:56 pm

      Huh. What should I expect for Christmas? I don’t think you’ll like many of these bands, but I’ll go for it anyways.


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