Every media outlet, newspaper, magazine and blogger with a keyboard has already published their “best of” list for 2010. Now, I’ll annoy you with MY choices!
THE BEST: Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid: A stunning album, continuing a thematic trilogy started with Monae’s 2009 EP. In context, the songs are all about Monae’s alter ego, the android Cindy Mayweather. But they’re timeless songs that mix classic R&B with futuristic sounds. There were several really amazing, mindblowing songs here: Cold War, Locked Inside (recalling Stevie Wonder), 57821, and the catchiest shoulda-been-a-hit of the year, Tightrope, a song I’m still not tired of hearing and that will be a classic for years to come.
The true centerpiece for me is Oh, Maker, a song loaded with imagery (is she singing to her lover? Her creator? God?) which starts quietly and eloquently and soon soars with Monae’s voice. The only mystery to me: How did this not become a huge hit in 2010?
This album woke up my ears and created a hybrid out of different styles in a way I haven’t been excited about since the heyday of Prince (with Wendy and Lisa’s influence) and Michael Jackson’s initial pop albums. And that’s saying something.
THE REST OF THE BEST
Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part 2: A hard choice between this and Monae’s albums for best of the year. Part 2 was far more fun, funky and accessible than Part 1. Whether it was old school (Agitation, Turn Me Away, Umm Hmm) or an unforgettable new jam (Fall In Love), New Amerykah was another CD that stayed on “Play” all year long.
Liz Phair, Funstyle: Phair has created a media firestorm for most of her career – first with the now-classic Exile in Guyville, and then with her much-maligned albums for Capitol, where label pressure clouded her judgement and led to some unfortunate production choices on her Liz Phair album.
That paled in comparison to the vitriol directed at 2010’s Funstyle, Phair’s self-released album. And I’m not sure why, because to me the album sounds like a dispatch from someone who’s finally escaped the suffocating straitjacket of a major label contract. Yes, it’s unusual. Yes, it’s got some rough edges. And there’s a song or two on Funstyle that sounds like a left-over from those glossy major label sessions.
But Phair’s sense of humor shines through in a way we haven’t seen since Exile or the Girlysound sessions. There’s also a growing comfort with a new R&B flavor in Phair’s guitar-based work. Bang! Bang! sounds more like Goldfrapp or Garbage than Liz’s usual work. Oh Bangladesh and You Should Know Me are right up there with my Phair favorites.
And yes, Liz kinda, sorta raps on Bollywood. It’s easily the craziest track here, but also the funniest. And it’s Liz’s story. I just think it’s interesting how people have reacted. David Lowery of Cracker can complain about the labels and gets praised to the heavens. Is it Phair’s persona, her reputation – or sexism – that’s led to a completely different reaction here?
The National, High Violet: I didn’t get the fuss about The National over their last album, Boxer. But High Violet to me sounded like an unearthed demo from some late-night alternative station from the 90s – the kind I was a DJ at. I can’t stop playing Anyone’s Ghost, Bloodbuzz Ohio, or Lemonworld. Matt Berninger’s baritone, seen-it-all-before voice is pretty irresistible.
Miike Snow, Miike Snow: This was technically released in 2009, but I discovered it earlier this year. It’s a mix of traditional alternative rock and an electronic sound, and a great set to keep a party going or to work out to.
Bibio, Ambivalence Avenue: I discovered this late in the year, thanks to the Kindle commercial featuring the song Lovers’ Carvings. Bibio’s album is a great mixture of natural, organic sounds wound into an electronic/ambient coating. Think Boards of Canada but with samples from nature instead of 1970s filmstrips.
My favorite books this year:
THE BEST: The Kids Are All Right, Liz and Diana Welch: Not to be confused with the equally fine move. One of the most unique books I’ve ever read, it’s several stories in one. It’s the story of a nuclear family blown apart by loss. It’s the story of Ann Williams, an actress who appeared on daytime soap operas for almost 20 years.
It’s the story of four siblings, and although the circumstances they lived through are VERY specific, the book beautifully addresses what can become an issue for some families: Every person in a family will have their own memories, their own perspectives, and will see things in their own way. And, as the title says, they’re all right.
THE REST OF THE BEST
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot: I’ve read thousands of books in my life, but never a book with such a far reaching scope nor one so relentlessly fact-checked. This is the story of Henrietta Lacks, but I’m not saying another word. Because quite frankly, everyone should read this book. THIS is American history – race, medicine, ethics – and it’s not just the past, but the present.
Mary Ann in Autumn, Armistead Maupin: Maupin’s classic Tales of the City series really snaps back to life in this book. Maupin took a break from the series to write a few other novels, including one about Tales character Michael “Mouse” Tolliver that was more about Mouse than a true Tales book. But he returns to the serialized format with this book, which addresses how Mary Ann and Mouse are dealing with late middle age. The delightful Anna Madrigal is no longer their landlady, but still acts as the group’s “transmother.” Though I’ve read all the Tales books, I was surprised by the hairpin turn one story took at the end of the book – to reveal a completely different ending that echoes back to the first books. Great soap opera, about characters we care about.