1) Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – A masterpiece of personal importance and sonic beauty, Kanye West’s fifth album bounces right back from the depths of his 808s snake pit of despair, this time with West as the ultimate aural auteur. Sure, “Power” is a helluva single. Yes, Nicki Minaj destroys with her Slick Rick-channeling appearance on the intimidatingly loaded “Monster” and West’s partners in crime (Bon Iver, mostly, along with a bizarre lineup of random voices from Elton John to poet Gil Scott-Heron) elevate Fantasy to more of an experience than an album. But it’s West alone – always alone, even when surrounded by people – who has earned the right to control his environment entirely. The result is a rhapsodic trip of attrition and defiance.
2) Tim Kasher: The Game of Monogamy – A member of Saddle Creek’s Cursive and the Good Life, Kasher exceeded expectations with his debut solo album. Monogamy is a sweeping yet accessible requiem for soured relationships and no-madic romanticism. Set apart from Cursive’s impenetrable musicianship and the Good Life’s ironic pop, Kasher introduces soul-searching simplicity without compromising his notorious affection for slippery rhythms and skyscraping melodies.
3) Hurts: Happiness – Appearing out of nowhere in slick suits and slicker hair, U.K. synth duo Hurts seem as though Tom Ford’s A Single Man underwent some kind of musical mitosis and plopped out this remarkable album of respectfully contained, emotional inner explosions. Standout tracks like “Silver Lining” and “Blood, Tears & Gold” pull off the seemingly impossible: They dance coldly, calculatingly around the Euro-disco sand trap of drama queenhood, picking their moments to taunt their bombast until it comes out and plays. When it does, well, this is what it sounds like when men in Prada gloves cry.
4) S.K.I.P: Until the Very End – With all the apocalyptic imagery surrounding its release (and contained within its accompanying comic books), I expected some fiery doom and gloom from S.K.I.P’s years-in-the-making outing. Far from it, Until the Very End is a smile-inducing venture, a top-to-bottom feel-good album, even when the MC’s message – “Everything’s going to hell,” essentially – is just the opposite. Conjuring sensibilities and sounds from genres such as ragtime, blues, acid jazz and dusty soul, it’s an endlessly danceable soundtrack for the world’s farewell party. Raise a toast to going out in style.
5) Bruno Mars: Doo Wops and Hooligans – His hooks are annoying, his lyrics are mostly excruciating and he somehow crammed in a coke bust in between owning the Billboard charts and killing it on SNL, but somewhere in there, Hawaiian singer-songwriter Bruno Mars recorded a pretty durable pop album. In addition to writing and singing on smashes like his own single, “Just the Way You Are,” B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ On You,” Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire” and Cee-Lo Green’s ubiquitous “Fuck You,” Hooligans added an element to pop culture this year that was even stranger than Big Boi’s talkbox or Wavves’ Funicello punk: nouveau-Ritchie Valens earnestness. From “Grenade” to the hilariously impulsive and chiming “Marry You” and the thrillingly double-time, Cee-Lo-assisted “The Other Side,” Mars proves himself the Lionel Richie of now – someone whose songs we’ll chuckle at years from now, even as we sing every word.
Michael Jackson: Michael – There seems to be no end to the embarrassment the Jackson estate will drag the King of Pop’s memory through. Admittedly, this collection of late-period castoffs from the singer, namely his last decade spent grasping for relevancy and settling for inner-circle guest-house wannabe producers, is a self-inflicted wound. But what was once only head-shakingly bad in “the lost demos” has been imbued with import and canonization with Michael, a distasteful toggle between self-deification (“Hold My Hand” and “Best of Joy”), self-pity (“Breaking News”) and Jackson’s ugly side – that ever-present, Jehovah’s Witness-based slut-shaming that reared its head fascinatingly on “Billie Jean” and now pathetically on “Hollywood Tonight.” The sole bright spot: album closer “Much Too Soon,” a folksy Thriller outtake.
Surfer Blood: Astrocoast – We know we rule, but 2010 was finally the Year of Florida when it comes to the national indie stage. And these West Palm Beach boys kicked it off might-ily with this meteoric and utterly current album. Undeniably the Sunshine State’s brightest beam this year, the consistently forceful Astrocoast has already proven itself one of our most worthy and far-reaching indie rock exports of all time. And on its wings, the Florida gold rush is now on.
Suuns: Zeroes QC – This one flew under the radar, but the electro threaded drone rock of this new Quebecois band is seriously dope. Mysterious and sexy, its forward thinking, on-downers steeze is a narcotic sound that has nothing to do with impenetrable echoes and haze. Their sonic spaces are drawn with vivid definition, but they swerve with dizzying elasticity. Since Autolux couldn’t fill its own shoes in moody, penetrating rock music this year with their highly anticipated but completely underwhelming follow-up, Suuns does so with maximum confidence.
Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain’t No Grave – I came this close to including Roky Erickson’s resurrection album with Okkervil River (True Love Cast Out All Evil) because it’s another inspired and inspiring confab between legendary artist and caring producer, but I went with this one because, ultimately, it’s the more historical. Listening to a true American great musically etch his own headstone with such unflinching rawness is as harrowing as it is tender. This shit will break your heart.
The Black Keys: Brothers – I’m a diehard fan of the greasy, ass-owning thump of their early material. Their 2004 breakout, Rubber Factory, moved away from that to widen their garage-blues vista, but it wasn’t until this brilliant album that they finally arrived at a beautifully rounded sound that effectively transcends their two-piece dynamic. Some of Brothers’ strongest moments don’t even rely on the Keys’ hallmark ruggedness. It’s a defining work by these modern American masters.
Weekend: Sports – This year saw the beautiful rise of a new wave of really good shoegaze bands, and this young San Francisco outfit is definitely in the vanguard. Merging Psychocandy buzz saws and My Bloody Valentine’s blissful haze with stately post-punk melodies that swoon with dark pop loveliness, Weekend hits that impeccable balance between noisy power and tuneful precision.
Freebass: It’s a Beautiful Life – If it’s not the year’s worst album, it’s definitely the most pathetic. Formed by Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Mani Mounfield (Stone Roses, Primal Scream) and Andy Rourke (the Smiths), this group of indie superstars is over the hill but intriguing nonetheless. But instead of turning this bass-based concept into something charged and powerful like Basements of Florida, they just sound like cheap, vague knockoffs of their respective bands. The group has had well-documented internal strife, but the real problem is the material. Maybe it’s their age, or maybe it’s their true pedigree as secondary figures from primary bands really showing, but this junk’s just flaccid. Pass the blue pills.
1) Janelle Monae: The Archandroid – At no point since it was released in May did this album budge from its No. 1 spot on my list. This is what soul music should have sounded like for the past two decades: playful, weird, conceptually rich and genre-agnostic, not to mention completely amazing in concert.
2) Chemical Brothers: Further – This album was, by far, the biggest surprise of 2010. With almost 20 years under their belts, the Brothers have no need to even try at this point. Yet Further shows a confident duo that has nothing to lose, abandoning completely their Big Beat past in favor of squelchy, krautrock-inspired, electro-noise suites that are challenging, weird and future-proof.
3) Serena-Maneesh: S-M 2: Abyss In B Minor – Noise annoys, but in the case of this record, it can also be used to dizzying, assaultive effect. This album is the meth-addled inversion of Loveless, a brutally beautiful batch of psychedelic thunderstorms.
4) Viernes: Sinister Devices – In a year filled with beautiful and evocative dream pop records, it’s pretty great that 2010’s most beautiful and evocative dream pop record just happened to have been recorded right down the street from me. It’s ethereal without being wispy, substantial without being heavy.
5) Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday – Sure, Kanye West made the consensus favorite hip-hop album, but let’s be real for a minute: It’s exactly what you expected it to be. Pink Friday, on the other hand, was a complete disappointment. But after the disappointment faded, it soon became clear that Minaj was not only a gifted rapper but also a weirdo pop star in full bloom, and that combination means that she’s the only lady out there who can do flouncy, why’d-he-break-my-heart ballads and rhyme “punt” with “cunt.”
Salem: King Night – I hate Salem. I hate that the term “rape gaze” was coined to describe them. I hate their conspicuously druggy public persona. I hate that they co-opt a 5-year-old hip-hop remix style. I hate that they sing/rap/mumble about some truly execrable shit. But what I hate the most is that, after I played it at an appropriately loud volume, King Night made me enjoy, repeatedly, something that could be described as “purple drank shoegaze.”