Times music writers pick their favorite albums of 2010
In this day and age, critical consensus is hard to come by in the world of popular music. There are as many musical subgenres in 2010 as there were album releases four decades ago, and even the most plugged-in fan can’t help but miss essential recordings.
As a further service to those looking for musical guidance, what follows are numerous highlights from a very fruitful year, as well as the complete top 10 albums list from each of The Times' pop music writers. Chief pop critic Ann Powers went first, and her year-end pieces can be read here.
Brian Eno, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” (Warp Records). An instrumental album that walks the line between passive and active listening, Eno’s “Small Craft” offers a genius connecting the dots between a few of his many strengths. Within “Small Craft” are the patient flourishes of his ambient works and rhythmic excursions of his rock albums. But most important, Eno, with the aid of collaborators Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, has made music for the present: immediate, transgressive and utterly modern.
Ariel Pink and Haunted Graffiti, “Before Today” (4AD). Few artists in 2010 are able to say they’ve created a new sonic template, but Ariel Rosenberg, whose stage name is Ariel Pink, has, over the last decade, created a uniquely Arielian sound. Is it prog rock? Post-punk? Beefheart for a new era? It’s a mystery, what exactly Pink and his band Haunted Graffiti have made on “Before Today.” But whatever its genesis, it’s unlike any other rock album you’ll hear this year.
Junip, "Fields" (Mute). Singer José González, best known for his gentle ballads as a solo arist, found a groove this year with a rhythmic, percussive, utterly infectious batch of songs on "Fields." They feel universal and multicultural without feeling forced: You can hear the pop sensibilities of González's Sweden, the Tropicalia percussion of Brazil, early "Autobahn"-era Kraftwerk and the mantras of French-British guitar band Stereolab. Each song on "Fields" gets a running start and then, like a hang glider reaching the edge of a cliff, takes to the air and floats on the wings of harmonious momentum.
Randall's complete top 10:
1. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam)
2. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, “Before Today” (4AD)
3. Brian Eno, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” (Warp)
4. Joanna Newsom, “Have One on Me” (Drag City)
5. Janelle Monáe, “The ArchAndroid” (Bad Boy/Wondaland Arts Society)
6. Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Def Jam)
7. Various artists, “Apparat DJ Kicks” (K7!)
8. The Black Keys, “Brothers” (Nonesuch)
9. Junip, “Fields” (Mute)
10. MGMT, “Congratulations” (Columbia)
Mary Gauthier,“The Foundling” (Razor & Tie). The acclaimed Louisiana singer and songwriter tackles the most powerful story of all -- that of her own life -- in this extraordinarily powerful and clear-eyed song cycle encompassing issues of abandonment, adoption, identity, blame, forgiveness and love set to music as richly diverse as the thematic content.
Sparks, “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman” (Lil' Beethoven). The long-running L.A. band, fronted by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, extends its remarkably high artistic batting average over the last decade in this project -- commissioned by Swedish radio -- focusing on the great film auteur. Their song cycle, operatic in its musical and conceptual scope, follows Bergman from his 1956 international breakthrough at Cannes through a comically fantastical journey to Hollywood, where the forces of commerce and blind avarice wage a battle for Bergman’s artistic soul. If Broadway’s looking for a modern day musical of real invention and substance, this is it.
John Jorgenson, “One Stolen Night” (Pharaoh Records). Guitarist and clarinetist Jorgenson transcends his obvious affection for the influential jazz of gypsy musician Django Reinhardt in this collection in which Jorgenson’s own compositions bring the swing and effervescent joy of the master’s music fully into the 21st century.
Randy's complete top 10:
1. Jakob Dylan, “Women + Country” (Columbia)
2. Neil Young, “Le Noise” (Reprise)
3. Mary Gauthier, “The Foundling” (Razor & Tie)
4. Sparks, “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman” (Lil Beethoven Records)
5. Tom Jones, “Praise and Blame” (Lost Highway/Mercury)
6. John Jorgenson, “One Stolen Night” (Pharaoh)
7. Peter Gabriel, “Scratch My Back” (Real World)
8. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge)
9. Los Lobos, “Tin Can Trust” (Shout! Factory)
10. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam)
Cee Lo Green, “The Lady Killer” (Atlantic). With a song known as “Forget You” to PG-rated outlets, Cee Lo Green delivered the year’s most jubilant kiss-off. But the hate is sweetened with video game references, exaggerated vocals and a love of vintage soul. Consider it the entryway to “The Lady Killer,” but it’s only a hint of the album’s scope. The 14-track effort, bookended with spy-movie orchestral flourishes, is essentially a concept album devoted to the extremities of passion. He’s a '50s playboy slow-dancing to prom-friendly violins on “Old Fashioned,” a devilishly nonchalant seducer crooning between offhanded horns on “I Want You” and downright menacing on the murderously atmospheric “Bodies.” Mixing styles, and jumping from the retro to the modern in the span of verse, “The Lady Killer” is a fast-moving, hook-filled primer on the last 50 years of rhythm and soul.
Besnard Lakes, "The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night" (Jagjaguwar) There’s plenty that’s left unsaid in the songs of Montreal’s Besnard Lakes. “Things got weird for a bit,” Olga Goreas sings on “Albatross,” coyly summing up a long-lost relationship gone wrong. It all unfolds over 4½ minutes of heavily layered and deeply hypnotic guitar tones, which, when paired with ever-so-delicate backing vocals, allow the listener to get lost in the musical love letter. Now on Album No. 3, the songs of the Besnard Lakes don’t riff so much as ebb, with oceanic waves of guitars capturing the act’s arena-ready roar, and Beach Boy-worthy harmonies arriving to tame it. Voices are used like pieces of an orchestra -- Goreas’ partner, Jace Lasek, has a falsetto that can make spines quiver -- and songs become mini-suites, as they’re often broken into multiple parts. It’s the rare rock band that aims for patience on a grand scale.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, “IRM” (Elektra). There hasn’t necessarily been anything wrong with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s previous musical efforts, but nothing all that striking, either. Often light and airy, they capture the vocals of the French star at their most feathery. Not so with “IRM,” an album that opens with the sound of an MRI machine, and then somehow manages to turn cold panic into something of a trance. It’s a probe of anxiety, inspired by the life-threatening brain injury Gainsbourg suffered after a water skiing accident. It’s also a taut, almost tribal-like exploration of traumatic numbness. If that’s not your idea of fun, know that local rocker Beck crafted an exquisite mix of oddball rhythms and unexpected instrumentation that never fails to surprise. The backdrops don’t coddle Gainbourg, and the folksy electronics and sparse beats provide the vigor to complement her conversational tone.
Todd's complete top 10:
1. Janelle Monáe, “The ArchAndroid” (Bad Boy Entertainment/Wondaland Arts Society)
2. Titus Andronicus, “The Monitor” (XL)
3. Besnard Lakes, “The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night” (Jagjaguwar)
4. Gorillaz, “Plastic Beach” (Virgin)
5. The Roots, “How I Got Over” (Def Jam)
6. LCD Soundsystem, “This Is Happening” (DFA/Virgin)
7. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge)
8. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam)
9. Cee Lo Green, “The Lady Killer” (Elektra)
10. Charlotte Gainsbourg, “IRM” (Elektra)
Laurie Anderson, “Homeland” (Nonesuch). This album is a testament to process. Stitched together from hundreds of samples of Anderson’s live performances, “Homeland” is not only unusual for its construction but also for its scope. On her first studio album in 10 years, the performance artist-cum-musician takes on the banking crisis and other troubling events of modern American life. Still, some of her most beautiful meditations are the most personal: “She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head,” she intones. “And this was the beginning of memory.”
The Black Keys, “Brothers” (Black Keys). Deep into their career, the Ohio duo of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have released the most refined vision yet of their temperamental blues-rock. On “Brothers,” Auerbach coaxes gorgeous, gold-smudged tones from his instrument while Carney provides a sure-footed ballast in the storm. And that would be fine enough, but their sixth album also boasts the kind of songwriting that sticks like tar to the ears, while maintaining a quicksilver, surly streak.
Margaret's complete top 10:
1. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs” (Merge)
2. Janelle Monáe, “The ArchAndroid” (Bad Boy/Wondaland Arts Society)
3. The National, “High Violet” (4AD)
4. Vampire Weekend, “Contra” (XL)
5. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam)
6. Beach House, “Teen Dream” (Sub Pop)
7. The Black Keys, “Brothers” (Nonesuch)
8. Laurie Anderson, “Homeland” (Nonesuch)
9. Liars, “Sisterworld” (Mute)
10. Best Coast, “Crazy for You” (Mexican Summer)
No Age, “Everything in Between” (Sub Pop). “Everything in Between” is a breakup album. Literally, in the sense that it was recorded in the aftermath of the end of singer-drummer Dean Spunt’s longtime relationship. But in the process, No Age seemed to finally abandon its idea of what the band should be. No longer beholden to a division between its hard-core calisthenics and codeine-addled ambience, on “Everything in Between” the band focuses on moments of synthesis. Guitarist Randy Randall coaxes ephemeral bliss from his pedals and Spunt finally proves unafraid of a pop hook. They come out the other side with the record everyone suspected they had in them.
The-Dream, “Love King.” Forget the fact that there is no “Florida University,” or the gall in writing a post-Prince smoove-jam about a girl named “Nikki,” or the impracticality of the erstwhile Terius Nash’s advice to drop five figures on makeup every time you upset your lady. What makes “Love King” the R&B album of the year is the vulnerability that seeps between every glittering, mirrored edge of its production. “I wanna be all you ever talk about / If you let me in that body, Imma turn that (other guy) out,” he promises atop the blown-out drums and Champagne-spackled synths of “Yamaha.” He’s desperate, he’s brazen, he’s needy. And he’s telling the truth.
August's complete top 10:
1. Perfume Genius, “Learning” (Matador)
2. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam)
3. Flying Lotus, “Cosmogramma” (Warp)
4. Zola Jesus, “Stridulum/Valusia” (Sacred Bones)
5. Best Coast, “Crazy for You” (Mexican Summer)
6. No Age, “Everything in Between” (Sub Pop)
7. LCD Soundsystem, “This Is Happening” (DFA/Virgin)
8. Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Def Jam)
9. The-Dream, “Love King” (Def Jam)
10. Wavves, “King of the Beach” (Fat Possum)
Monica, "Still Standing" (J Records) In a year in which R&B artists upgraded (and in some cases downgraded) to utilizing heavy European dance synths and even harder-edged urban rhythms, Monica tapped into her '90s heyday. Her first album in four years was heavy on slow-burning ballads and funky mid-tempo tracks laced with guitar riffs, drum patterns, piano interludes, church house vocals and lush melodies. The songstress allowed longtime collaborator Missy Elliott to deftly sample a few classic '80s soul moments here, including building Deniece Williams’ simmering love ode “Silly” into the vintage groove of the album’s first single -- and one of her best ballads -- “Everything to Me.” Monica might not be trying to keep up with the cool kids, but in this case, a little throwback goes a long way.
Bruno Mars “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” (Elektra). Despite being the mastermind behind some of the year’s catchiest tunes for other artists, including Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire,” “Nothin’ on You” by B.o.B. and Cee Lo Green’s “[Forget] You,” Bruno Mars didn’t skimp when it came to his own album. The crooner’s collection of bright, guitar-driven tunes is full of sing-along hooks and enough hip swaying rhythms to keep the house party going. Mars’ songwriting is at its best on the love anthem “Just the Way You Are” and the heartbreak delight of “Grenade.” Kudos to Green for returning the favor on one of the album's standout jams, “The Other Side,” and to “Glee” for breathing life into the elope-friendly “Marry You.”
Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Def Jam). Complex, witty rhymes and multilayered beats that tread a nearly invisible line between hip-hop, rock, funk and electro (and a bit of opera thrown in for good measure) fuel Big Boi’s official solo debut. Though a lengthy dispute stalled its release, and forced the other half of Outkast’s voice to remain absent (a true shame given Andre 3000’s cadence on promo single “Royal Flush”), the wait was worth it. Ambitious and inventive, it wasn’t surprising that Big Boi's (born Antwan Patton) old label felt the album was too artsy. General Patton crafted one of the most focused hip-hop albums of 2010. Alas, despite being a critical darling, he was largely ignored in this year’s batch of Grammy recognitions, though his swagger-touting club banger, “Shutterbug,” did garner him a nod. At least he’s whetted the appetites of Outkast fans eagerly awaiting new work from the duo.
Gerrick's complete top 10:
1. Kanye West, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (Def Jam)
2. Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Def Jam)
3. Diddy Dirty Money, “Last Train to Paris” (Bad Boy)
4. Cee Lo Green, “The Lady Killer” (Elektra)
5. Monica, “Still Standing” (J Records)
6. Drake, “Thank Me Later” (Young Money/Cash Money)
7. Rihanna, “Loud” (Def Jam)
8. Nicki Minaj, “Pink Friday” (Young Money/Cash Money)
9. Bruno Mars, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” (Atlantic)
10. Chiddy Bang, “The Preview” (EMI)
Madlib, “The Medicine Show (Volumes 1-11)” (Madlib Invazion). Otis Jackson Jr. has a cure for whatever ails you. No nostrums necessary -- these panaceas are bottled in rainbow colors and wild forms. A decade-and-a-half deep into a hall of fame career, the enigmatic artist known as Madlib opted to distill his encyclopedic body of knowledge into 11 collections of inspirations and influences -- one a month (the finale awaits). Should your body be wracked by a deficiency in psychedelic African rock, sun-dappled Brazilian Tropicalia, brain-wrecked '70s prog-rock, disco, reggae, high jazz, advanced jazz, filthy beats or hard-boiled hip-hop, these tunes are tailored to feed your sorrows. Madlib’s impossibly deep crates and superior taste accounts for only half of the “Medicine Show’s” genius. The rest lies in the self-proclaimed Beat Konducta’s ability to reel a United Nations’ worth of sample sources into his own counter-clockwise orbit.
Tame Impala, “Innerspeaker” (Modular). The concept of contemporary psych-rock is practically an oxymoron, but Tame Impala’s opiated ballads bathed the genre in a hydroponic shine. A hybrid of celestial Swedish fusionists Dungen and the Beatles at the height of their “Revolver”-era experimentation, Kevin Parker and his Perth associates angled themselves toward the heavens, with supernatural melodies, dust-caked drums and dreamy guitar licks creating a light show worthy of Griffith Park. Based in one of the most isolated cities in the world, Tame Impala sounds beholden to neither time nor gravity.
Jeff's complete top 10:
1. Madlib, “The Complete Medicine Show (Volumes 1-11)” (Stones Throw)
2. Darkstar, “North” (Hyperdub)
3. Four Tet, “There Is Love in You” (Domino)
4. Caribou, “Swim” (Merge)
5. Actress, “Splazsh” (Honest Jon's)
6. Tame Impala, “Innerspeaker” (Modular)
7. Big Boi, “Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty” (Def Jam)
8. Danny Brown, “The Hybrid” (Rappers I Know)
9. Roc Marciano, “Marcberg” (Fatbeats)
10. Guido, “Anidea” (Punch Drunk)
More: Year in review: Movies, television, music and the arts
Top image, clockwise from left: The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach (Getty Images); Besnard Lakes' Jace Lasek (Jack Plunket / For The Times); Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times); Big Boi (Jessica McGowan); Tame Impala's Kevin Parker (Getty Images); and, center, Charlotte Gainsbourg (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)