The tussle of 2010, for me, was wrestling with albums that I loved, but which lacked that elusive quality of "importance," and records that felt fresh and ambitious and exciting, but weren't the kind of thing you want to listen to all the time. This list, then, is a compromise: the top five (after the jump) are all albums that ranked high on both hierarchies, while the bottom five are a mix of the deliriously enjoyable along with records that seemed to help forward the style and cause of pop music in 2010. Here we go:
A musical snuggie for the shoegaze set, this 10-song wash of melancholy and reverb was the year's coziest soundtrack to a chill anything. I don't quite understand this record's seductive appeal, but repeated listens have taught me never to discount the endlessness of it.
We could label this garage-rock or psych-pop or some other hyphenated nonsense, but really it's just grunge. Pretty much perfect San Francisco-born grunge, actually: blown-out guitar thrashing, distant howling about girls and bees and the Mississippi river, and a general sort of dazed, laconic charm in which every element -- including our narrator -- sounds like it might burn up or, well, melt away, at any moment. The pervasive rumble of "Girlfriend" made for one of the year's most satisfying rock-outs, but there isn't a bad song among these 11. If Segall's ambitions aren't as far-reaching as some other artists on this list, that's okay with me: making a rock 'n' roll record this throughly fun is no minor achievement.
8. Janelle Monáe -- The ArchAndroid
Speaking of ambition, Monáe built her stupidly great sophomore album out of a massive storyline about robots and the future and Metropolis, or something. For me, it was all about the music: those unshakeably funky Brownsian grooves, the deliriously lofty Hendrixian guitar take-offs, and a voice so superhumanly gorgeous, versatile, and unique that it truly made this Kansas native seem like a godlike creature from another planet. The story is epic, so the album is therefore somewhat saggy in places. But even when it drags, The ArchAndroid is pretty good stuff to get lost in.
7. Sleigh Bells -- Treats
Before this, I would never have believed two people could produce such a racket -- and that it could make for such giddy, addictive listening. Because of those latter qualities, this might be the most aptly titled album of the year.
6. The Black Keys -- Brothers
The Black Keys added bass and keys, kept everything else the same, and made their most epic blues-rock album ever. Must also state mega-gratitude to Wick-It the Instigator for proving my conviction that the low-end grooves on this thing would fuel some banging hip-hop beats
, along with the Keys' usual fist-pumping, heart-tearing muscle-rock remedies.
5. Flying Lotus -- Cosmogramma
Things it may be like: a blind slog through a sandstorm; a naked hi-dive into a swimming pool of heavy cream, live worms, and Tabasco; and/or a blindfolded gang initiation of jazz bass, lazer synth stairways, and alien voices. Really. While I love Cosmogramma's sudden moments of relief-as-epic-perspective (see eye-of-the-storm "... And The World Laughs With You," featuring Thom Yorke), I've never quite become inured to the bewildering -- hell, I'll just say irritating -- shifts of color and rhythm on Steven Ellison's masterful third album, and that's a good thing. This L.A. wizard makes new, interesting, and, yes, difficult music. No number of repeated listens has taken the edge off this record, unlike most made this year, and I hope it stays that way.
4. Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs
Yeah, Arcade Fire reached for Big Important Album and grasped mostly lots of just "big." But despite the at-times unsightly girth of this 16-song epic, it still provided more of this year's great rock moments than almost any other record I heard. Standouts for me: the ominous piano stomp of the opening title track; the mysteriously evocative muscle of "City With No Children"; and the anguished resignation on "Half Light II (No Celebration)". Like most products of the American suburbs, it could stand to shed a little excess. But Arcade Fire take their Springsteenian storytelling with a seriousness that's (mostly) refreshing -- and that's also rare these days. I'm inclined to reward that.
3. Big Boi -- Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Having attained a sort-of mythical status due to struggles with Jive Records over its release, we kinda expected Sir Lucious to be good, or at least interesting. But damn if this record didn't grab our eardrums and refuse to let go. We're still picking phrases out of Big Boi's labyrinthine rhymes, and it's still fun.
2. LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening
So what if they didn't do hits? LCD Soundsystem made its masterwork with This Is Happening.
1. Kanye West -- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Assemble immaculate production, top-shelf rhymes, loads of noteworthy guests, and a titanic, obnoxious, ultrafamous, and totally self-obsessed personality being uncomfortably honest about his feelings, his life, and his worldview, and you get this. Not only is the end product important and fascinating -- it's also a cunningly effective and thrilling listen.