As we close the book on 2010, one thing becomes apparent: It may very well have been the best year for music in a long, long time. Major-label artists went insane, indie-rock acts topped the Billboard albums chart, and Kanye just kept being Kanye. The end result was 12 months positively brimming with excellent albums, to the point where making a list of the 20 best was darn-near impossible. Still, I tried. It’s my job, after all.
So here are my picks for the 20 Best Albums of 2010. Rock, hip-hop, pop and electro records — from artists big and small — that managed to stick with me through the entire year, which was no small feat. Looking at it now, there are at least a half-dozen other albums I could’ve included. It really was that good of a year.
That said, I’m sure I left a few off my list, so I’m counting on you to remind me of anything I might have missed. Let me know in the comments below, and here’s to a truly great 2010.
20. Linkin Park, A Thousand Suns
The year’s most ambitious major-label rock album was also the most controversial, an icy, chilling listen that alternately thrilled and thinned LP’s substantial fanbase with its vast swaths of sonic sprawl (and overall lack of guitar solos). A Thousand Suns may be Linkin Park’s Kid A or it may just be a colossal misstep, but either way, there’s no denying the dense, dark power it packs.
19. Villagers, Becoming a Jackal
The similarities between Conor O’Brien and Conor Oberst go a lot deeper than just a few letters, a pair of dewdrop eyes and a general lack of height. For proof, I present Becoming a Jackal, an expansive, haunting and largely self-produced debut that rivals Oberst’s Lifted … in terms of ambition, scope and sonic palette. The potential on display here is truly staggering, and I can’t wait to hear what he does next. So long as it’s not Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
18. The Black Keys, Brothers
An unlikely — though well-deserved — breakout for Akron, Ohio’s hardest-working blues hammers, Brothers bears the fruit of everything that came before it (the team-ups with Danger Mouse and Dame Dash, frontman Dan Auerbach’s solo album) and boils it down into a staggering, swaggering mash. The tunes are raw and ribbed, and there’s a snarling — dare I say sexual — streak that runs through them all. Required nocturnal listening, even during the day.
17. My Chemical Romance, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys
It’s not a concept album; rather, it’s an “allegory” for the sad state of the music industry, a heat-seeking “missile” aimed at the barely fluttering heart of rock and roll. In short: It’s a positively vital album. On Danger Days, MCR are out to save the world, and they do it by ditching the theatrics (and Liza Minnelli cameos), reinventing themselves as dusty, DayGlo outlaws and harnessing the sheer power of rock. It may seem silly, but it’s also a battle someone needs to fight.
16. Beach House, Teen Dream
Forget Katy Perry; Baltimore’s Beach House wrote 2010’s best soundtrack to teenage melodrama. Teen Dream is full of gauzy harmonies, sun-dappled guitars, swoony histrionics and songs like “Zebra” and “Walk in the Park” that just keep opening up, until they gently burn out and fade away. I’d like to hear them take on “California Gurls” next.
15. Eminem, Recovery
Three million Eminem fans can’t be wrong. There’s a reason Recovery is the best-selling album released in 2010, one that has as much to do with our love of comeback stories as it does the undiluted strength of Eminem himself, who, clean and sober for the first time in years, lets it rip, tackling subjects both old (celebs) and new (himself) with a renewed vigor and venom. Shoot, at one point he even manages to work “antidisestablishmentarianism” into the mix. When he raps “I am the American Dream,” he’s not boasting; he’s just telling the truth. After all, he’s been to the bottom, and with Recovery, he’s pulled himself back up to the top by his bootstraps.
14. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
A haunting (and haunted) recollection of the claustrophobic past and the agoraphobic present, Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter at their most woozy, weary and wispy, which is to say it’s also them operating at the absolute peak of their abilities. An album brimming with ideas and gauzy expanses, vespertine ghosts and floating embers, Halcyon Digest is the musical equivalent of prying open the attic and feeling the warm gust of dusty breath that greets you. Sometimes it comforts, but most of the time it just gives you chills.
13. Rick Ross, Teflon Don
Big Meech. Larry Hoover. And about a million other characters, both real and imagined. Teflon Don is Ross’ most thrilling listen, alternating between blunt-force braggadocio (“B.M.F.” ) and silk-suited swagger (the flossy, glossy “Super High” ) with a deftness that belies his general ginormitude. You can debate the authenticity of his words, but you cannot challenge his storytelling abilities. Hollywood doesn’t make movies this big, let alone Miami.
12. Sleigh Bells, Treats
Sounds like: cheerleader camp, power tools f—ing, the “level-up” music on any NES game (circa 1988), a really sh—y Sanyo boom box, double Dutch, hyperspace, hellfire, hurricanes, a more polite Motörhead, Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly,” Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” (’cause they sample it), Brassy, Crystal Castles on Quaaludes, Link Wray on Amphetamines, the impending robot apocalypse, “Top Gun,” summer, guard dogs, drugs and joy. In theory, Sleigh Bells are just a guy, a girl, a guitar, some (seriously) overworked machinery and a whole lot of distortion. But in actuality, they’re so much more.
11. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song
Country purists tout his unflinching dedication to all things blue-collar (the bar, the hometown, the paycheck), and they’re correct to do so, but what resonated with me about the double-disc Guitar Song was Johnson’s ability to flat out-write 99 percent of his contemporaries. Songs like “California Riots” and “Playing Part” rattle with outsider wit — and outrage — and though I’m no country purist, even I can’t deny the beery hook of “Lonely at the Top,” on which Johnson crows, “It’s lonely at the top/ But it’s a bitch at the bottom.”
10. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
Forget everything you (probably didn’t) know about Sufjan Stevens. That seems to be the message behind The Age of Adz, a dense, sprawling, cluttering, heaving mass of machinery and orchestration that kicks off with his trademarked plaintive plucking and then proceeds to abandon anything of the sort for the next hour or so. Sure, it’s a head-spinning swirl, and the last song may be 25 minutes long (!), but when Suf bleats, “I’m not f—ing around” on penultimate track “I Want to Be Well,” you can’t help but believe him. Because beneath all the rattletrap, this is an album about very basic (and very Sufjan) things: love, faith, sex, death. Adz is very much a passion play, and though it often comes close to rattling off the rails, it never really does, which is as much a testament to his skill as it is his focus. Dig deep, and the rewards will be yours.
9. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot, Son of Chico Dusty
Way back in 2005, Big Boi promised that his solo album would feature “something from every genre, every funk, beat, loop, horn [and] whistle.” He also said that it would be hitting stores in 2007. And while he may have been off-base when it came to the release date, he wasn’t kidding around about Lucious Left Foot’s sonic stew; it’s got everything and then some. From the wacked-out funk of “Shutterbugg” to the big-screen weirdness of “General Patton” to the cameos by everyone from Yelawolf to George Clinton, this is a deep-fried, jaw-dropping, head-rattling, downright stanky voyage through his wonderfully odd world. Needless to say, it was worth the wait. Besides, at this point, who needs another Outkast album, anyway?
8. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid
The year’s most un-categorizeable album, a conceptual cluster-frick that leaps between genres with the same glee Monáe seemingly gets from pulling her hair up in that outrageous pompadour. Sweaty funk, honey-dripping soul, pastoral folk, paranoid psych — it’s all here, and it’s all great. Over the course of 18 tracks, the pint-size Monáe weaves a dystopian narrative that’s part “Blade Runner,” part “Metropolis,” managing to out-Badu Erykah and out ATL-ien Outkast (“Cold War,” which just might be the year’s best song, rages and wails like the baby sister of Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad”). Ambitious, impressive stuff, even if you can’t adequately describe it to anyone who may be interested.
7. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
In 2007, James Murphy wrote the coda for New York’s once-bright electroclash scene with “All My Friends,” a bittersweet beauty of a song that also doubled as a rather perfect rumination on the unstoppable advance of middle age (something he’s been dreading for a while now, actually). Thankfully, he hasn’t shuffled off into pleated-khaki obsolescence just yet, and, if anything, on This Is Happening, he seems to be coming to terms with his lack of cool, lamenting, “Everybody’s getting younger” (on album-opener “Dance Yrself Clean”), rolling his eyes at the drunk girls on the dance floor, extolling the virtues of finding “good places to eat” in his neighborhood and picking fights with Village Voice gossip columnists — just because. Acerbic, sarcastic, downright hilarious (and, sometimes, even downright sad), Murphy’s like Randy Newman, only for bloggers and kids who still take drugs and dance all night, and minus the paunch and the Hawaiian shirts. For now, at least.
6. The National, High Violet
Somber. Brooding. Beautiful. These are some of the things the National do better than anyone, and on High Violet, they’re doing it best. Over the course of 11 knee-buckling tracks, frontman Matt Berninger weaves fractured tales of genteel, upper-middle-class guilt, regret and sadness. He’s skilled (and confident) enough to never tell us the entire story, however, instead giving us mere pieces of the picture — a party upstate, a glass of pricey booze, a stray tennis shoe, a kid on your shoulders, a debt that cannot be resolved — and leaving the rest up to our imaginations. And, surprise, surprise, when left to our own devices, we conjure up things more horrible and morose than anything he could have written. His bandmates match him every step of the way, creating a wall of sound that’s sometimes paranoid (check the guitars on “Afraid of Everyone”), sometimes gorgeous (the piano/horns that just keep building on “England”) but always artfully, woefully sad. Whenever you see a dad standing in his driveway, staring out into nothing while his kids play in the yard and his interest rates climb onward toward infinity, High Violet is what’s playing in his head. Safe and secure but dead, or dying, beyond saving and beyond hope. Never, in his wildest dreams, did he think he’d end up like this.
5. Vampire Weekend, Contra
Four years ago, Vampire Weekend were thrust into the spotlight with their self-titled debut and suffered all the slings and arrows that come with that kind of overnight success. Sure, with their pique polos, boat shoes and penchant for, uh, borrowing from the Soweto sound of South Africa, they brought a lot of it upon themselves — but you couldn’t blame them for being a bit taken aback by it all. After all, one can only be picked apart by critics (and anonymous blog commenters) for so long before they snap. And Contra is the result. It’s by no means an angry album; rather, it’s a determined one, a well-conceived, flawlessly executed “f— you” to their detractors. From the WASPy (and litigious ) gal on the cover to the culturally loaded content of tunes like “Horchata” and “Holiday,” this is VW at their most resolute. Of course, they back it all up with a boatload of really great tunes — “Cousins,” “Giving Up the Gun,” the album-closing title track — making Contra perhaps the most polite middle finger in music history. You catch more flies with honey, after all. And then you crush them.
4. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
“Sometimes I can’t believe it,” Win Butler keens at the beginning of The Suburbs. “I’m moving past the feeling.” It’s a striking way to kick off an album, but you get the feeling he doesn’t actually believe the words coming out of his mouth, because he spends the next 50-odd minutes attempting to convince himself otherwise. And really, that struggle — to remember (and reconnect with) his roots, to recolor his past, to celebrate (or, alternately, vilify) the place he once longed to leave but now aches to return to — is what makes The Suburbs such a compelling, beautiful and, more often than not, terrifying listen. Because, really, Butler’s childhood is no different than yours, even if you didn’t grow up in the sprawl: We all learned to drive, we all fell in love, we all waited by mailboxes and discovered punk rock and felt alone and misunderstood. The frightening part is that he’s reached the inevitable conclusion many of us haven’t: that friendships end and people disappear, that the past is gone and it’s never, ever coming back. Sometimes it’s easier not to feel.
3. Robyn, Body Talk
All hail the new Queen of Electro Pop. In 2010, Robyn released three albums of staggeringly great, pulse-quickening pump, a feat that, on sheer effort alone, probably would’ve earned her the crown. But unlike any of her contemporaries (insert whomever you’d like here), she infused her tunes with genuine heart, filling even her sweetest bon bons (“Dancing on My Own,” “Hang With Me”) with a heartbreakingly sour center. Of course, sometimes, she just wanted to get down, and when she did (in songs like “Dancehall Queen” and “Fembot”), she distanced herself from the pack too. You can heap on the accolades, but at the end of the day, what makes Robyn’s triumphant rise so great is that she did it her way, never compromising and never looking back. Picking up the mantle of fellow Swedes like ABBA and Ace of Base, she now lords over dance floors worldwide. And she doesn’t show any signs of abdicating the throne anytime soon. Long may she reign.
2. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
Sure, it’s flawed — a tad too long, a bit unfocused, a little muddied, production-wise — but one expects those sorts of things, especially when a band this young attempts an album this ambitious. The Monitor is, after all, a concept album, though said concept is sort of hard to define: In part, it’s about the Civil War (it takes its name from the first ironclad ship built by the U.S. Navy), but it’s also about wild-eyed frontman Patrick Stickles’ quest to figure out life in the 21st century, a journey that takes him from the safe confines of New Jersey to the unfriendly confines of Boston and back again. He never quite finds what he’s been searching for and, in the end, learns that things are just as fractious as they were 150 years ago — perhaps even more so. Bursting with ragged, thoroughly epic songs (“A More Perfect Union,” “Four Score and Seven,” “The Battle of Hampton Road”) and buoyed by an indomitable spirit that can’t be deflated no matter how troubling the times, The Monitor is the kind of album so big, so bold and so unabashed that you learn to love it, warts and all. Sometimes it pays to dream big.
1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In theory, Kanye began spinning his Fantasy on September 13, 2009, immediately after storming the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards. That wasn’t actually the case, of course, but when you’re dealing with truly great works, sometimes a little mythology is needed to do them justice. And Fantasy is truly a great work, West’s most personal album to date, full of unflinching introspection, bloody honesty and, of course, outrageous brags and boasts. It’s less an act of contrition than it is a sweeping declaration of independence, full of odes to excess and depravity, thrilling highs and crushing lows, as West gives the listener a guided tour through the past 14 months of his own personal hell. Accordingly, there are angels and demons, ghosts and Greek choruses, kings and pharaohs, but there’s never truly an apology, because there really shouldn’t be. By getting deep, by being brave and bold and, yes, probably a little bit crazy too, West has not only created the hip-hop album of our time, he’s succeeded in having the last word too. And if there truly is nothing left to say, perhaps I’ll just end with this. It sort of sums everything up, doesn’t it?
What did we miss? Share your picks for the Best Albums of 2010 in the comments below!