My Favorite Albums of 2010 – #1
I don’t want to blow this statement out of proportion, but Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois probably had the most profound effect on my taste in music of any album in the past decade. Everything about Stevens’ music was unfamiliar to me: What was with the ridiculously long song titles? Why do a concept album about an entire state (and not even his first)? What’s with all the banjos?
I wasn’t used to listening to music that was so diverse, moving and sincere. It actually threw me off a bit, having grown up listening to bands with loud electric guitars and, well, not much else. (When I graduated from high school in 2004, my mix CD of choice featured Muse, early Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alkaline Trio, and so forth.) When I consider that I made the leap from that stuff to Stevens’ indie-folk-rock sound in the span of a year, it’s actually kind of shocking.
At the time, it was a challenge for me to understand and appreciate Stevens’ music. But I almost immediately came to love Illinois, and from there I found myself branching out into all kinds of music I would have probably otherwise ignored. Sufjan Stevens was the catalyst I needed to get off my high horse and discover that there are all kinds of awesome music across a wide variety of genres and time periods waiting to be listened to.
If I were to assign a theme to my musical focus over the last five years, it’d be one of exploration. I finally discovered The Beatles one day in 2006 while driving down I-5 in the middle of a summer heatwave in a minivan with broken A/C. I grew to love bands like The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band and The Band while relaxing on the back porch of Melissa’s parents’ house. I discovered great DJs like Bonobo and DJ Shadow every time I went to visit my cousin in Seattle. I figured out the whole podcasting thing a couple years back and immediately subscribed to NPR’s All Songs Considered, which is a wonderful program for getting a pretty broad taste of new and noteworthy music. I even made a few awkward, tenuous steps into the world of rap and hip-hop this year. Hell, I paid money for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. (It was only a dollar, but that counts!)
Maybe it’s a strange thing to say, but this was the year when I finally felt satisfied with my understanding of and appreciation for music. I had done my research, learned about bygone eras of music, and come to discover and embrace all kinds of crazy, different stuff that I’d never have considered listening to as a teenager.
And then Sufjan Stevens came and changed everything. Again.
I don’t think anyone was expecting this. What happened to the banjos, the quiet introspection, the folk heroes and common tragedies? What happened to Sufjan?
As it turns out, he acquired some illness that affected his nervous system, causing chronic pain and forcing him to stop recording music for a few months. That might help explain why The Age of Adz is such a major departure from his previous work thematically, instrumentally and lyrically.
It’s bold, grandiose, challenging, and beautiful. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times and I’m still hearing new instruments and layers that I’d missed before. I’ve never heard anything like it.
Frankly, I don’t think anybody has ever made music that sounds like this. It’s fascinating. It gives me more hope for the future of intelligent, groundbreaking new music than anything I’ve heard in recent years. And that’s why it’s easily my favorite album of 2010.