The Best Albums Of 2010 (So Far)

Vampire Weekend, Janelle Monáe and more have provided the soundtrack for the first six months of the year, in Bigger Than the Sound.

The first half of 2010 is in the books, and if you’re a fan of oil spills, Tea Parties and vuvuzelas, well, congratulations on having the best six months of your entire life.

For the rest of us, January through June has been a bit of a bummer. If you’re like me, you’ve found refuge from the bad news in good music, and thankfully, there’s been a whole lot of that so far this year too.

If you’ve been asleep at the switch (or hiding out in your bunker), I don’t blame you. But there’s really no excuse for missing out on soul-charging, life-changing music — even if some of it really is pretty sad. So, as a public service to the trembling masses, here are my picks for the Best Albums of 2010 (so far).

10a. The Wave Pictures, If You Leave It Alone/Instant Coffee Baby
Ultra-literate, supremely swoony Brit pop, courtesy of Morrissey-in-the-making David Tattersall, this double album collects two of their most recent (and best) LPs for the first time here in the States. Of course, given that they came out in 2006 and 2008, respectively, it feels sort of like cheating to include all of this on a Best of 2010 list, so, instead …

10b. Kate Nash, My Best Friend Is You
The sound of being young and brilliant and tormented and so wonderfully, frighteningly in love that you don’t know whether to scream or cry, My Best Friend Is You represents Kate Nash at her most scattershot, squeaky and downright smart. Ditching the studio polish that dragged down her debut (2007′s Made of Bricks), she teamed up with Bernard Butler to make an album that’s rough, sprawling and unafraid to get plain weird, which is probably how we ended up with songs like “Paris” “Kiss That Grrrl” or “Don’t You Want to Share the Guilt,” which ram together ’60s girl groups, ’90s riot grrrl and ’70s boho spoken-word punk. Confident one minute, conflicted the next, Nash is a complex gal, indeed, and while it’s hard being young and gifted, for the first time, she seems ready to accept the responsibilities and carry the mantle.

9. Tobacco, Maniac Meat
As the frontman of Pittsburgh weirdos Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tom Fec buries his vocals in a marshmallowy mash of vocoders and buzz. As Tobacco, well, he pretty much does the same thing, only he’s somehow upped the weirdness. Maniac Meat is a twitchy, witchy listen, darker and more perverse than anything he’s previously done. Kind of like a mohair sweater on bare skin, the tracks here itch and irritate (in the best way possible), and you’re probably gonna end up with a rash. But you listen anyway. Throw in a couple of Beck cameos (on “Fresh Hex” and the excellently named “Grape Aerosmith”) that find the former Odelay madman sounding fresher than he has in years, and Meat only continues to fester. Don’t pick at the scabs.

8. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
What happens when one of Brooklyn’s brightest bands decides “Screw this, let’s make a pop record”? Odd Blood, of course. Perhaps the most fittingly titled album in recent memory, it’s a wavy, dreamy listen, full of supple, electronic fields that undulate and dip, creating precipitous peaks and delving canyons, with frontman Chris Keating’s otherworldly vocals floating above it all like plump clumps of cumulonimbus — all of which is a rather bookish way of saying that Britney, Katy and Gaga wish they could sound this good. Pop music for the 22nd century and beyond.

7. Against Me! White Crosses
Just as polished and unabashed as their divisive 2007 major-label bow New Wave, still as snarling as 2005′s Searching for a Former Clarity, White Crosses somehow also ushers in a brand-new chapter for Gainesville, Florida, punkers Against Me! Frontman Tom Gabel has settled down, gotten married and welcomed a child into the world, which is perhaps why, here, he seems a tad bit, well, reserved. But it could also be that, after more than a decade spent raging against the machine, he’s finally realized that the problems haven’t changed, the enemies have multiplied, and the rich just keep on winning. So instead, he turns his ire inward, railing against pinheaded crust punks he used to run with (on unlikely radio staple “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) and the suffocating Florida suburbs of his youth. Turns out, the past sucks just as much as the present. And in the process, the snarl somehow only gets fiercer.

6. Sleigh Bells, Treats
Sounds like: cheerleader camp, power tools f—ing, the “level-up” music on any NES game (circa 1988), a really sh—y Sanyo boom box, double Dutch, hyperspace, hellfire, hurricanes, a more polite Motörhead, Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly,” Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (’cause they sample it), Brassy (thanks, Weingarten), Crystal Castles on Quaaludes, Link Wray on Amphetamines, the impending robot apocalypse, “Top Gun,” summer, guard dogs, drugs and joy. In theory, Sleigh Bells are just a guy, a girl, a guitar, some (seriously) overworked machinery and a whole lot of distortion. But in actuality, they’re so much more.

5. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
In 2007, James Murphy wrote the coda for New York’s once-bright electroclash scene with “All My Friends,” a bittersweet beauty of a song that also doubled as a rather perfect rumination on the unstoppable advance of middle age (something he’s been dreading for a while now, actually). Thankfully, he hasn’t shuffled off into pleated-khaki obsolescence just yet, and, if anything, on This Is Happening, he seems to be coming to terms with his lack of cool, lamenting, “Everybody’s getting younger” (on album-opener “Dance Yrself Clean”), rolling his eyes at the drunk girls on the dance floor, extolling the virtues of finding “good places to eat” in his neighborhood, and picking fights with Village Voice gossip columnists — just because. Acerbic, sarcastic, downright hilarious (and, sometimes, even downright sad), Murphy’s like Randy Newman, only for bloggers and kids who still take drugs and dance all night, and minus the paunch and the Hawaiian shirts. For now, at least.

4. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
So far, it’s the year’s most un-categorizeable album, a conceptual cluster-frick that leaps between genres with the same glee Monáe seemingly gets from pulling her hair up in that outrageous pompadour. Sweaty funk, honey-dripping soul, pastoral folk, paranoid psych — it’s all here, and it’s all great. Over the course of 18 tracks, the pint-size Monáe weaves a dystopian narrative that’s part “Blade Runner,” part “Metropolis,” managing to out-Badu Erykah and out ATL-ien Outkast (“Cold War,” which just might be the year’s best song, rages and wails like the baby sister of Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad”). Ambitious, impressive stuff, even if you can’t adequately describe it to anyone who may be interested.

3. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Sure, it’s flawed — a tad too long, a bit unfocused, a little muddied, production-wise — but one expects those sorts of things, especially when a band this young attempts an album this ambitious. The Monitor is, after all, a concept album, though said concept is sort of hard to define: In part, it’s about the Civil War (it takes its name from the first ironclad ship built by the U.S. Navy), but it’s also about wild-eyed frontman Patrick Stickles’ quest to figure out life in the 21st century, a journey that takes him from the safe confines of New Jersey to the unfriendly confines of Boston and back again. He never quite finds what he’s been searching for and, in the end, learns that things are just as fractious as they were 150 years ago — perhaps even more so. Tent-poled by three truly epic tunes (“A More Perfect Union,” “Four Score and Seven” and “The Battle of Hampton Road”) that keep the whole thing from sagging in on itself, The Monitor is the kind of album so big, so bold and so unabashed that you learn to love it, warts and all. Sometimes it pays to dream big.

2. Vampire Weekend, Contra
Four years ago, Vampire Weekend were thrust into the spotlight with their self-titled debut and suffered all the slings and arrows that come with that kind of overnight success. Sure, with their pique polos, boat shoes and penchant for, uh, borrowing from the Soweto sound of South Africa, they brought a lot of it upon themselves — but you couldn’t blame them for being a bit taken aback by it all. After all, one can only be picked apart by critics (and anonymous blog commenters) for so long before they snap. And, well, Contra is the result. It’s by no means an angry album; rather, it’s a determined one, a well-conceived, flawlessly executed “f— you” to their detractors. From the WASPy gal on the cover to the culturally loaded content of tunes like “Horchata” and “Holiday,” this is VW at their most resolute. “This is who we are,” they seem to be saying. “Deal with it.” Of course, they back it all up with a boatload of really great tunes — “Cousins,” “Giving Up the Gun,” the album-closing title track — making Contra perhaps the most polite middle finger in music history. You catch more flies with honey, after all. And then you crush them.

1. The National, High Violet
Somber. Brooding. Beautiful. These are some of the things the National do better than anyone, and on High Violet, they’re doing it best. Over the course of 11 knee-buckling tracks, frontman Matt Berninger weaves fractured tales of genteel, upper-middle-class guilt, regret and sadness. He’s skilled (and confident) enough to never tell us the entire story, however, instead giving us mere pieces of the picture — a party upstate, a glass of pricey booze, a stray tennis shoe, a kid on your shoulders, a debt that cannot be resolved — and leaving the rest up to our imaginations. And, surprise, surprise, when left to our own devices, we conjure up things more horrible and morose than anything he could have written. His bandmates match him every step of the way, creating a wall of sound that’s sometimes paranoid (check the guitars on “Afraid of Everyone”), sometimes gorgeous (the piano/horns that just keep building on “England”) but always artfully, woefully sad. Whenever you see a dad standing in his driveway, staring out into nothing while his kids play in the yard and his interest rates compile onward toward infinity, High Violet is what’s playing in his head. Safe and secure but dead, or dying, beyond saving and beyond hope. Never, in his wildest dreams, did he think he’d end up like this.

Honorable Mentions

Beach House, Teen Dream
Forget Katy Perry; Baltimore’s Beach House wrote 2010′s best soundtrack to teenage melodrama. Teen Dream is full of gauzy harmonies, sun-dappled guitars, swoony histrionics and songs like “Zebra” and “Walk in the Park” that just keep opening up, until they gently burn out and fade away. I’d like to hear them take on “California Gurls.”

The Black Keys, Brothers
An album of nocturnal grooves, Brothers finds Akron, Ohio, blues hammers the Black Keys mellowing a bit, giving their usually tightly constructed tunes some space to breathe. The end result is wildly sensual stompers like “Everlasting Light” and “Next Girl” and their first-ever radio tune, the spindly, unspooling “Tighten Up” — which is kinda funny, since, you know, they’re doing the exact opposite.

Freeway and JakeOne, The Stimulus Package
Free just can’t catch a break. But unlike some of his Roc-A-Fella brethren, he’s not content just to shiver in the shadow of Jay-Z. So he jumped to Rhymesayers, teamed with producer JakeOne, and produced The Stimulus Package, a gripping, urgent album dripping with sweltering soul samples, staccato drums and swelling strings. “Never Gonna Change” masterfully blends all three and stands as one of the year’s best tracks.

The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang
Pro: Is really Springsteen-y. Con: Is really Springsteen-y.

Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
I sort of lambasted this one earlier this year for being too longwinded, and while that still holds true, it has definitely grown on me, thanks to the run of songs that starts with “White Flag” and ends with “On Melancholy Hill.” It’s an unmatched string of eight great tunes, but the thing is, after it’s over, Plastic Beach just keeps on going and going …

The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever
The great songs are still great (“The Sweet Part of the City,” “Barely Breathing,” “The Weekenders”), but for the first time in the Hold Steady’s career, they’ve released an album that features its fair share of clunkers too (pretty much everything else on here). Sure, I love them, which is why I’m including Heaven Is Whenever here, but I’m starting to worry a bit about them too. This is what happens when your favorite bar band gets a little too big for its britches. Like frontman Craig Finn predicted all those years ago, they’re slipping soft rock into the set now.

Rick Ross, The Albert Anastasia EP
Like Rick himself, this one gets a little doughy around the middle, but there’s no denying the impact of songs like “MC Hammer” and “Blowin’ Money Fast (B.M.F.),” which swing hard and swagger even harder. Full of style, sophistication and a bit of streetwise grit, Albert Anastasia has me positively drooling to hear his much-discussed Teflon Don LP, which is due later this year.

Robyn, Body Talk, Part I
Swedish pop tart Robyn plans to release three albums this year (though, to date, this is the only one that’s surfaced — better get crackin’, Robs). And, thanks to the sumptuous songs here, my appetite has officially been whetted. Only eight songs long but definitely not short on notable moments — like “Fembot,” “Don’t F—ing Tell Me What to Do” and “Dancing on My Own” — Body Talk might just be the most satisfying appetizer in recent memory.

Shabazz Palaces, Shabazz Palaces
Claustrophobic, stoned-out glitch-hop from one of the dudes who used to be in Digable Planets. The Palaces — who, aside from Ishmael Butler, is comprised of a series of mystery musicians — released two seven-song albums this year, and their second, full of sparse, prime-era Def Jux beats and Butler’s world-scarred verses, has really latched on with me. And terrified me too.

Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
These blurry-eyed, bed-headed Florida boys have exactly one truly amazing song (that would be the surging “Swim”), but the rest of the album ain’t bad either. Reminds me of Dinosaur Jr.’s major-label days. Plus, two of their songs feature the phrase “Jabroni” in the title, which is good enough for me.

Villagers, Becoming a Jackal
Conor O’Brien just very well may be the Irish Bright Eyes, and Becoming a Jackal could end up as his Fevers and Mirrors. I’ve only given this one a few listens, but the (largely self-produced) wall of sound he’s created here is definitely noteworthy. Dark, transcendental and unashamed to be either of those things.

The Young Veins, Take a Vacation!
Crackling, shuffling, downright snug retro pop from Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, the guys who left Panic! at the Disco to crawl around in the canyon, fire up the one-hitter, and unsheathe the Rickenbacker. You’ve got to admire their commitment to following their own peculiar muse, even if this stuff probably won’t sell one-tenth of what their former band did.

What did we miss? Share your favorite albums of 2010 (so far) in the comments!