A surprisingly small amount of blood was shed in determining the best albums of the year for 2010, though that’s not from any shortage of quality material. What began as a top ten list conversation immediately split its britches and doubled in size, because a kaleidoscopic variety of truly worthwhile sounds was released this year that we’d be doing a disservice to if we let you forget as we step onto the next annual musical carousel.
We’ll undoubtedly catch fire for our number one selection, and truth be told it’s a bit of a surprise even to us. But the goods speak louder than hype, and that’s what matters long after the trolls have gone to sleep. So as long as the Gorillaz don’t blow everyone’s minds with a free album on Christmas morning that shakes up the list, we’re good to go.
If you don’t know a name on this list it’s time to start digging (the links provided with each selection will help), because there’s not an album on here that hasn’t earned its share of repeated full-volume listens at dangerously high speeds through some mountain range or seaside cliffs over the past year, with yours truly wide-eyed and white-knuckled behind the wheel. 2010’s been one hell of a great musical ride – here’s 20 reasons why.
1. Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West returns to the full-length two years after the release of the cold-beat pity party 808s & Heartbreak, and there’s a maniacally inspired ambition to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (formerly Good Ass Job) that immediately sets it apart from not only the entirety of his previous catalogue but the current climate of Hip-Hop as a whole. Every boast we’ve heard, every ridiculous claim we’ve seen is rendered somehow, some way, justified, if only for the duration of the album’s 68 minutes.
A rampantly evolving talent, ambitious orchestral production, unabashed grandiosity and full-throttle confidence has just upstaged & ante-upped the entire rap scene in one fell swoop. Check mate.
No album better captures the Zeitgeist of 2010. That makes it bigger even than Kanye West thinks he is. Ultimately, he’s served the highest purpose of an artist, and that is to be a conduit for all of which a society is unable to, or unwilling to articulate. MBDTF will forever be a time machine back to 2010, the year of the douchebag.
2. Black Keys
Recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, Brothers is a riff-roaring cumulation of the Keys’ strongest blues grit, with a return to the production gloss they warmed to for 2008’s Attack & Release. A linear path of development and exploration is evident in even the most casual stroll through the band’s catalog, but never has the Akron blues duo pooled their stylistic strengths and transcended their own standard more than on this latest release.
There’s a reason Brothers sounds like a hard-fought leap of progress for the pair, who each explored solo albums between releases; Carney said as much in a recent interview with Billboard: “Dan and I grew up a lot as individuals and musicians prior to making this album. Our relationship was tested in many ways but at the end of the day, we’re brothers; I think these songs reflect that.”
Despite running fifteen tracks, Brothers never suffers a lull, and the castaways are minimal on an album that explores many different threads in the blues tapestry. The open spaces are vital, as overbuilding any of the songs would amount to covering their core, simple beauty. In more than one way, this is the Black Keys’ Goldilocks album, where all the variables seem to have come together just right, no element is too high or low in the mix. The result is a glowing success.
Recovery is without question the strongest, most potent & versatile offering Eminem has delivered yet, possessing the most devastating and detailed lyrical narratives this side of Fear Of A Black Planet. It certainly doesn’t have Planet’s revolutionary soul, but what it lacks in a greater movement it compensates for in the most clever, obliterating character annihilations and hilarious, rewind-demanding multilayered entendres the game’s ever seen.
From the perspective of a 24-hour music junkie, a fanatic for evolution of form and transcendental devotion to the craft, this album reaches new heights of lyrical prowess and delivery. Marshall Mathers has a new lease on the mad scientist lyrical-savant funhouse he calls a life, and he’s earned every bit of praise he’s bound to receive for this one.
Ambitious, avant-garde and about as complex in flavor as a mouthful of Jelly Bellys, the album isn’t nearly as pop friendly as the first two Gorillaz releases; there’s little to no sign of the 19-2000s or Feel Good, Incs of yesteryear. There are strange new peaks, however, that simply dismiss outright commercial appeal ambition
Addictive beats, otherworldly effects and the occasional super-gravitational black hole of a hook ensure that Plastic Beach will be held in high regard. The 80s love-pop throwback instrumentation of On Melancholy Hill is heart-brimmingly adorable and as catchy as any ditty Air’s come up with, as Albarn’s Vicodin tenor softly washes through in passive fashion.
There’s kneejerk fault to be found in the missed opportunity for a smash hit, but ultimately it’s missing the point entirely. Plastic Beach is a snapshot of a wildly colorful jungle of influence & inspiration, a futuristic clusterfuck that takes repeated listens to settle in – but once the clouds of alien adaptation break, a strange new sun shines through, and the Gorillaz soar to entirely new heights.
Diamond Eyes is a brilliant and fiercely colorful collection of tracks that finds the Deftones reaching a new stage of evolution, delivering the most progressive, dynamic work of their careers.
Refusing to hide behind the touchstone familiarity of their previous albums, these Sacramento rockers have obliterated any notion that they’ve been irreparably weakened by bassist Chi Cheng’s departure. He’s undoubtedly strong in their hearts and thoughts, but rather than dwell on the pain the band has risen to remarkable new heights with an album that surges into the light and establishes promising new horizons.
6. Alain Johannes
Spark explores an even-heeled balance between tribute, mourning and send-off romanticism that speaks volumes of not only Alain’s songwriting and performance abilities, but as a testament to his production prowess. It’s a purely-driven full-circle experience in ways that only one in his shoes can truly understand. “I actually finished the album 25 years to the day that Natasha and I met, November 29, 2009,” he explains. “That was our anniversary. In many ways, I was really just trying to make a record that she would be proud of.”
After one, two, fifteen listens and more, we’ve not a shred of doubt that she would be. This album is for guitar aficionados, for lovers of naked, powerfully honest music, for the eternally insatiable message board minions who scour the cyberscape for all things related to the world of Homme for another dose of Rock excellence, whether desert-infused or otherwise. They can rest comfortably, knowing there’s a new and very special gem in the family crown.
7. Fitz & The Tantrums
Picking Up The Pieces
At the beginning of the Summer, Fitz & The Tantrums were an LA band, in a sea of LA bands, that we weren’t going out of our way to discover. Then our readers started recommending them, and that’s when we knew they deserved a chance.
To answer the question inherently presented by anything retro, this band’s debut represents a true revival, rather than an exhumation; Without heart, you’re just a zombie, and Fitz & The Tantrums are not lacking anything in that category. In fact, many of the compositions on Pickin’ Up The Pieces are so perfect and full of conviction that it’s hard not to call them classics without exaggeration. To say that the swaggering, funky street corner sermon Rich Girls one-ups the likes of Mark Ronson and Wino and Duffy is not saying enough, and to say that the flawless, heartstring-plucking album-closer Tighter gives Elton John a run for his money might not even be saying too much.
Through the past few months since
its release our acquisition, Picking Up The Pieces has achieved the last thing we expected of it: It only gets better and better. Over just a short period time, it’s already matured beyond any suspicions of gimmickry, and it continues to expertly pluck our heartstrings.
8. Arcade Fire
The Suburbs digs through the dregs of lost identity and heartache, staring mortality in the face while casting a musical Molotov cocktail into the scene that both birthed and anchored Arcade Fire.
A brief, palette-cleansing reprise of this album’s title track bookends a 16-song, richly spellbinding journey that eclipses 2004’s Funeral and its 2007 sequel Neon Bible. There’s a clarity and currency of heart at play within these songs, a finely-tuned meeting of inspiration, vision and ability that will serve as a milestone in what’s sure to be a lengthy, illustrious career for Arcade Fire.
9. Janelle Monae
Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid is one of the most interesting pop albums to come along in a very long time, if its Gaga-trouncing boundary busting don’t disqualify it from the typically formulaic genre entirely.
Like esteemed new-school funk-mongering crossover pioneers such as Outkast, Gnarls Barkely, and Saul Williams, Janelle Monáe brings a lot more to the table than Gaga’s theatrics and costume, even more than Winehouse’s comparatively straightforward soul revival, and to our delight, advances the entire institution of pop music a step further into exciting new territory.
10. Sleepy Sun
If you listened to any of the albums on this list and didn’t like them, that’s okay. But promise us this: If you haven’t listened to Sleepy Sun’s Fever, do so right now. Give it a chance. We’ll wait.
Approach this album as cynically as you wish; as cynically as I did if you’d like. It will surprise you. Sleepy Sun gets absolutely right what too many bands in their genre get wrong: Heterogeneity. These musicians communicate, but it’s always a new angle to the conversation, and there’s always a point. They go down into the rabbit holes, but there’s always someone holding a string leading back out. It’s the opposite of the tiresome excessive hedonism so common among the rest of the atmospheric hippie jam-happy noisemakers.