1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West naysayers of the past year, it’s officially time to get over yourselves. You can claim he’s a douchebag. You can whine about his embarrassingly rude treatment of Taylor Swift. You can even say 808s & Heartbreak sucked. Fine. But on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Mr. West has resoundingly absolved himself of any and all public besmirching.
Unfailingly complex and as blatantly confident as Yeezy himself, the album is forever describable: apologetic, honest, chauvinistic, egotistic, ecstatic, ridiculous, catchy, dark, twisted — but most of all, it’s beautiful. MBDTF has the originality of College Dropout, the studio expertise of Late Registration, the swagger of Graduation and the emotional airing-out of 808s & Heartbreak. Of course, West was not alone in creating this grandeur – the album is royally stacked with a barrage of respected guests — with Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, Bon Iver and Kid Cudi among the prestigious assortment.
Kanye West wants to be (or already considers himself) “the best rapper alive.” He may not have officially won the crowning title just yet, but he did succeed in making the best album of the year — although it seems unlikely that this will satisfy ’Ye for long.
2. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Suburban discontent — it’s not exactly glossed over in contemporary art. So how to give a new take on such a worn-out subject? On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire doesn’t try to create some overcooked raison d’etre for the humdrum childhood wasted just short of urbanity. Each track provides a window into the ubiquitous 2.5-kids-and-a-golden-retriever suburban home, but with minimal judgment and irony.
Frontman Win Butler is always either one of “the kids,” or a guy looking at a faded photograph vaguely remembering when he was. It’s because Arcade Fire doesn’t hold up any pretense of “getting” suburbia any better than its fans do that The Suburbs has sprawled its way to the top. Who hasn’t seen ghostly malls tower above infinite stretches of flat pavement like “Mountains Beyond Mountains?” And what college kid can’t relate to old friends rebelling and drifting as time passes in “Suburban War?” Itching guitars and rising multi-voice choruses frame Butler and co.’s confused nostalgia for a childhood ill-spent — one that much of America shares, but that’s rarely laid out so flat. It’s not a new concept. But, like the suburbs themselves, we keep wanting to go back.
3. Beach House, Teen Dream
When it comes to towering heartachey melodies, Beach House had everyone else beat this year. Vocalist Victoria Legrand’s spectral balancing act between Herculean mother and smoky seductress honestly makes 99 percent of indie rock starlets sound like acid-washed teeny boppers. And Alex Scally’s clean-picked, merry-go-round guitar parts take the word “catchy,” slow it down to half its tempo and project it onto the folds of your heart tissue (along with mountains of nostalgia-oozing reverb). Beach House may have settled into its sound, but the net effect feels more like a remedial bowl of time-tested chicken noodle soup than a lazy attempt to cash in on a comfortable formula. On Teen Dream, the arrangements are lusher and swoopier, feeling less conjured by humans than anything off Devotion. And having leaked over a year ago, the album has already heftily transcended flash-in-the-pan status — this is a record we’re going to be listening to for years to come.
4. The National, High Violet
There’s something to be said about the eternal listenability of High Violet. There are no obvious, catchy hooks, no gut-busting guitar solos, no sing-along hit singles. Here, The National revels in its finesse for understatement — these guys are experts on subtlety, masters of raw emotion without sounding overwrought, connoisseurs of tasteful expression. Aided by Matt Berninger’s arresting baritone, The National has produced some of the most finely layered instrumentation of the last few years. From the apprehensive guitars on “Afraid of Everyone” to the closest thing The National has ever come to a pop song with “Lemonworld” to the rousing reprise of penultimate track “England,” The National has outcrafted itself (a feat many feared would be impossible after 2007’s superb Boxer). Once again, The National has proved not only its impeccable skill in the studio, but also for writing 11 songs that crawl into your brain and stay there.
5. The Black Keys, Brothers
The bluesy duo has done it again. The Black Keys’ sixth studio album, Brothers, has breached the charts and our Best of 2010 list. This album is a compilation of American blues rock at its finest. With a soul sound and rich guitar riffs, The Black Keys create a sound unique to the times. Vocalist Dan Auerbach brings the sultry and soulful vocals with a rusty, raspy tone that goes well with the rest of the album. Tracks like “Tighten Up” and “Everlasting Light” showcase the exacting uniqueness and bluesy-ness with tambourine-sprinkled backgrounds and a captivating drumbeat. Each track has an exceptional sound that makes it stand out from the others, but still connects the album as a whole. The Black Keys take listeners on a modern Motown ride with Brothers — and frankly, we don’t exactly want to get off.
6. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Like Conor Oberst fronting the E Street Band, Patrick Stickles’ lovelorn tales of drunken revelry and wasted youth were as epic as they were affecting. Shot through with a loose storyline surrounding the Civil War, each of The Monitor’s ten tracks — many containing multiple movements of their own — sounds on the verge of total collapse. When a track does collapse, a well placed spoken-word excerpt from Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman (voiced by The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn) was there to pick up the pieces. As dramatic as the band is on tape, festivalgoers were treated to a new mess altogether — live Titus provided a noisier alternative to the chillwavers and solidified a war-torn rallying cry: Titus Andronicus Forever!
7. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot
Listening to Sir Lucious Left Foot, it’s easy to forget it was due three years ago. Label battles, delayed release dates and the removal of a certain Three Stacks kept it behind the gates. But Left Foot doesn’t sound old. In fact, it sounds so far ahead of hip-pop’s better charting acts that it could drop next year and still sound fresh. Taking the best aspects of OutKast’s influences and crystallizing them to a funky, charming and nasty set of jams, Big Boi’s solo debut proves that Chico Dusty’s son can do just fine all on his lonesome.
8. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening
LCD Soundsystem helped define 2010’s sound with the atmospheric, deliciously synthy This is Happening. Aging hipster frontman James Murphy crafted an expansive, often painfully self-conscious album that sounds simultaneously vintage and modern. The album has a frenetic pace and features Murphy’s neurotic, often melancholy lyrics over dancy electro. The rambly opener “Dance Yrself Clean” starts out slow, but as Murphy wistfully looks back on old friendships, the synth explodes into a full-blown dance track that sets the pace for the rest of the record. Nostalgic and dynamic, the album is a finely tuned piece of art with plenty of soul.
9. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
Plastic Beach is superficially a critique of the artificial. However, as it progresses, it smoothly transcends into a celebration of synthesis through the creation of its own genre. It begins with an orchestral intro, and never fails to surprise as it rises into bouts of rap and then ebbs into ballads. Where else can Snoop Dogg be found tracks away from Lou Reed? How else would Mos Def share a song with R&B singer Bobby Womack? Plastic Beach effectually describes itself by deftly blending various styles of music together into a single harmonic polymer.
10. The Roots, How I Got Over
The Roots made one of the most surprising albums of the year. How I Got Over features characteristically clever lyrics grappling with heavy issues like politics and religion but also dabbles in funk on tracks like “Right On” and reinvents indie rock group Monsters of Folk’s song “Dear God 2.0” with shocking success. The title track is one of the highlights and may very well contain this album’s thesis statement. Black Thought raps over a tight beat, “First thing they teach us / Not to give a fuck / That type of thinking can’t get you nowhere / Someone has to care.” The Roots engage the listener and resonate long after the beats have faded.