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List-o-mania: The best albums of 2010

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Janelle Monae

Perhaps more than in previous years, pop music in 2010 presented strong albums and strong singles -- rarely by the same artists.

The musicians working in the traditional album model -- maybe they were inspired by consistent reports of its demise amid a rising online-driven, YouTube-video singles culture -- delivered some doozys. Meanwhile, those who either don't have a full-length, multi-song statement in them quite yet (or ever) punched through some killer singles that enlivened our playlists and expanded the usual summer song glut both directions into spring and fall.

Here are my picks for the best albums of 2010 ...

1. Janelle Monae, "The ArchAndroid" (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy/Atlantic)
1monae.jpgA lot of R&B artists this year tried to grab classic forms by the 'fro and (finally) drag them into the 21st century, but none had more artistic success than Janelle Monae -- on a debut album, no less. Working with an Afrofuturist theme (the album's loose narrative follows a time-traveling freedom fighter, like R&B's answer to the Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"), Monae raps and sings through smooth ballads and Philly soul and slow jams and massive, mothership funk. "I'm another flavor, something like a Terminator," she promises. The back story, the inspirational liner notes, the fast-flying lyrics -- it's a lot to absorb, but it's infinitely rewarding.

2. Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
Thumbnail image for kanyefantasy.jpgHe's a social menace outside the studio, but safely stationed behind the board the man is a wizard. After so many gaffes and stumbles, from VMA outbursts to all the flak he got for "singing" on his previous record, "808s and Heartbreak," Kanye West shut himself inside a Hawaii studio and honed this truly beautiful, very dark and kind of twisted masterpiece of hip-hop. The bevy of guests doesn't derail a singular artistic vision; it enhances it, like social media -- you get a better picture of who West is with input from his friends. But it's West's party, and it's a rager.

3. Arcade Fire, "The Suburbs" (Merge)
Thumbnail image for 3arcade.jpgCreaking, shivering, shuddering, the 16 tracks on this Canadian band's third outing howl like the wind through the cracked window panes. Squeezing every ounce of drama from dense, epic arrangements, Arcade Fire updates its art-rock thesis, reviving what the Waterboys used to call "the Big Music." "They seem wild but they are so tame," Win Butler sings in the meditative-then-urgent "Rococo." Tame enough that the establishment finally upped its notice; Arcade Fire has been nominated for best alternative album with each release, but this year "The Suburbs" is up for album of the year, as well.

4. MGMT, "Congratulations" (Columbia)
4mgmt.jpg2008's "Oracular Spectacular" put the duo of Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden on radio with the bouncy dance-pop of "Kids" and "Time to Pretend," but if you really listened to that MGMT album you heard the weirdness lurking underneath. If not, then by God they showed you on the follow-up, "Congratulations," an album of wonderfully creative pop music that threw people for a loop simply because it didn't have another thumping hit on it. The album opens with bongo and harpsichords, pays spacey tributes to Dan Treacy and Brian Eno, then careens its way into a 12-minute suite, "Siberian Breaks," which evolves from acoustic folk ballad to orchestrated philosophical anthem and again to a trickling New Age crescendo. A beautiful, well-composed act of defiance, and a smorgasbord for anyone who really loves pop music. They should be named honorary Dukes of Stratosphear.

5. Besnard Lakes, "Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night" (Jagjaguwar)
5besnard.jpgMontreal husband-wife duo Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas made the year's best earbud record, a sprawling soundscape that unites spacious, ringing Cocteau Twins mystery and fuzzy, sometimes stomping shoegazer rock. It's great listening when you're walking through a city like Chicago; both are full of surprises around every corner, if you pay attention. Guitars echo through the enormous sonic space, drums shove songs forward or hold them back, but the best parts are when the pair's beachy-boy harmonies sneak in, unabashed, in the neat little "Albatross" and even the seven-minute "Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent, Part 2." To listen to the high-cooing, string-saturated "Chicago Train" while riding one is pleasant enough to not mind missing your stop.

6. M.I.A., "Maya" (XL)
6mia.jpgRarely has an album comprised of such abrasive noises wound up sounding so exciting. (Paging Aphex Twin.) Auto-shop drills whirr in "Steppin Up," distortion and echo scuff up fragmented tracks like "Meds and Feds," and synths see-saw alongside and just underneath the pitch of "XXXO." The whole thing sounds like a shortwave radio receiving two signals simultaneously: an Orfa Haza record from the early '80s and a pirate dub station from the Caribbean. The way she cuts and quilts the sonic fragments shows how modern and forward-thinking pop music can get.

7. Titus Andronicus, "The Monitor" (XL)
7titus.jpgNew Jersey's Titus Andronicus assure you of one thing, "You'll always be a loser," which they repeat before concluding, "And that's OK." These are just guys at the bar, reeling around a bit, knocking things over, hyperactive and hyperintelligent. "The Monitor" is named for a battleship, and the album blazes from its launch with ironclad confidence through choppy seas. The band writes as well as it rocks, lurching through bleak tales with Big Country riffs, Pogues abandon and the herky-jerky freneticism of the Wrens. Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.

8. Mavis Staples, "You Are Not Alone" (Anti)
8mavis.jpgChicago's queen of soul is consistently celebrated for her gospel and R&B triumphs, alone and with the Staple Singers. But don't forget, the Staple Singers covered Dylan (twice in 1964), Delaney & Bonnie, Buffalo Springfield and the Band. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, her collaborator-producer on this album, approached from that more street-level direction, bringing the angel down to earth in a way I never thought we'd hear her again. Relaxed but righteous, the assurance of the title really sinks in.

9. LCD Soundsystem, "This Is Happening" (DFA/Virgin)
9lcd.jpgThe unspoken discrimination keeping rock and dance music drinking from separate water fountains ended in 2010. Dance music invaded pop again, which it's done before, but it carved deep in-roads into indie-rock largely because of Brooklyn producer James Murphy's "This Is Happening" and the rocking dance parties he threw on tour. He's made great LCD Soundsystem records before, but on "Happening" Murphy's nods to the inspirational past (especially Berlin-era Bowie) seem less like a plundered pastiche and more cohesive, unified, personal. Plus, anyone who can rock a two-note guitar riff like he does on "All I Want" deserves space here.

10. Cee Lo Green, "The Lady Killer" (Elektra)
10ceelo.jpgCee Lo's third album on his own, and first since pinging in the pop culture as half of Gnarls Barkley, does not simply recycle the joy and catchiness of his viral summer hit, "F--- You." It sometimes bests it. Track after track, it updates hoary R&B clich├ęs, swinging through the Curtis Mayfield beauty of "I Want You" to the Solomon Burke class of "Old Fashioned." R. Kelly's new album apes classic soul but never rises above an infomercial tribute; Cee Lo drags Motown, Gamble & Huff and more into the 21st century with flair.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on December 22, 2010 12:00 PM.

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