Bullz-Eye’s Favorite Albums of 2010: Staff Writer Carlos Ramirez’s picks

2010 was sensational year for music. Not only was there a slew of exceptional rock, metal, and indie records, released from proven acts, there was also an exciting crop of new artists that sprouted up throughout the year. Debut albums from Tame Impala, Aeroplane, and Mumford and Sons all showcased stellar songwriting while veteran artists like Bryan Ferry and Manic Street Preachers proved they still had gas in their creative tanks. For this year’s Bullz-Eye list, I’ve broken down my favorite albums into a few categories.

Best Pop Album

Ellie Goulding: Lights
Initially, this English newcomer performed her self-written material in a more intimate, singer-songwriter setting – but upon entering her university studies, she discovered and fell in love with electronica. She then started working with producers like Frankmusik and Starsmith, who began to reshape her song presentations. The retooling of Goulding’s approach proved to be pop music gold. On Lights, the songstress’ debut album, Goulding’s confessional lyrics and ethereal vocal delivery effortlessly weave through waves of synthesizers, hyper-melodic guitars, and Italo-disco bass lines. While there isn’t anything on Lights that is as obviously radio-baiting as Katy Perry’s inescapable “California Gurls,” there are at least six or seven tracks that top it in quality. There’s a song late on the record called “I’ll Hold My Breath” that I must have played a hundred times this past year. Musically, the track’s intro and first verse are kept lean, with hushed synths and acoustic guitars supporting a honey-sweet vocal from Goulding, but just when you think you know the direction the arrangement heading in, an explosion of crystalline keyboards and thumping drums gushes from your speakers, revealing what in my estimation is the greatest chorus of the last 12 months. Whether it’s dance-floor bangers (“Under the Sheets”) or gorgeous ballads (“The Writer”), Lights never misses the mark.

Best Metal Album

Alcest: Écailles de Lune
Alcest is the brainchild of a French musician who goes under the nom de plume Neige. Écailles de Lune is the project’s second album and is easily the most exhilarating musical piece that I came across in the last 12 months. Although Neige’s roots are in black metal, his wildly inventive arrangements aren’t exclusively bound to that genre’s parameters. Everything from the atmospherics of shoegaze to the barren soundscapes frequently favored by groups like Sigur Rós and Mogwai are explored on Écailles de Lune. Each song on the album is its own sweeping epic, with skyscraping guitars and serpentine mood shifts. Neige’s vocal performance also mirrors the music’s expansive reach. On “Solar Song,” the singer croons like he’s fronting a 4AD band circa 1991, but on the two-part title track, his tortured screeching and growling owes an obvious debt to his black metal background. Time will tell if Alcest finds an audience with non-metal listeners, but there’s certainly enough diversity on Écailles de Lune to warrant it.

Best Indie Rock Album

Best Coast: Crazy for You
It’s often said that writing a simple yet effective pop song is infinitely tougher to do than writing something proggy and complicated. If that’s really the case, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is a songwriting craftswoman of the highest order. Crazy for You, the Southern California group’s debut album, is 30 minutes of pure jangle-pop ecstasy. Cosentino is an astute student of the popular music songbook. She channels the melancholy spirit of the Girl Group era on “I Want To” and in the irresistible “Our Deal,” she delivers the kind of teenage melodrama-packed single that Lesley Gore would have cut during her chart-topping heyday. Sonically speaking, the classicism of Cosentino’s songwriting and singing style mixed with Lewis Pesacov’s analog-warm production style is a perfect match. Pesacov clearly understands the most appealing aspect of Best Coast is the melodies, and he never lets anything get in the way of them on Crazy for You. Let’s hope both parties work with each other again on the next record.

Best Rap Album

Roc Marciano: Marcberg
Even though guys like Drake and Lil Wayne got the lion’s share of press attention this past year, it was a little-known emcee from Long Island, NY that put together the most compelling rap album of 2010. Formerly affiliated with Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad and now going the solo independent route, Roc Marciano possesses a lyrical disposition that harks back to the era of hip-hop when artists like Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Black Moon were getting airplay on urban radio. On the production front, Marcberg finds Marciano rhyming over a collection of tracks that are often cinematic in their breadth and expose his admiration for obscure ‘70s soul and jazz records. Most of the rap releases that come across my desk come off like thrown-together compilations; what makes Marcberg such an accomplished work is that it actually feels like an album should feel. Instead of packing his record with a million guest artists and marring it with an undefined thematic vision, Marciano keeps us enthralled with his bleak yet focused wordplay, and elegantly produced tracks.

Best Comeback Album

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: History of Modern
Just like their fellow British synth-poppers Pet Shop Boys did with 2009’s wonderful Yes album, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark came back this year with their most inspired collection of songs in what seems like ages. The UK press has made a big deal about the group’s return to their classic four-piece line-up, but History of Modern is so much more than a nostalgia trip. While they do tap into some of the same textural flavors they worked with during their commercially successful mid-period, nothing on the album sounds contrived. What we get here is a striking balance of the sparse, synthesizer-anchored arrangements of their early records, with the poppier leanings of their best-known singles. It’s easy to hear OMD’s influence on contemporary artists like La Roux and Little Boots on tracks like “Sister Marie Says” and “History of Modern (Part II),” with their pulsating rhythms and lilting keyboard melodies. What’s clear here is that the time away from each other has invigorated Andy McCluskey and company.

Best Single

“Wonderful Life,” Hurts
Throw this single on your stereo, close your eyes and you’d swear it was 1986 again. Comprised of singer Theo Hutchcraft and synth-op Adam Anderson, Hurts is a Manchester, UK duo that specialize in a sultry brand of pop that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on that country’s Top of the Pops television show two decades ago. Released back in May, “Wonderful Life,” the second single from Hurts, sounded like nothing else being raved about across the blogosphere. One listen to the song and seasoned ears could hear a direct connection to artists like Spandau Ballet and the Human League when they were produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. “Wonderful Life” should have been a hit here in the States, but myopic pop radio programmers don’t bother playlisting stuff this elegant anymore.