To be honest, I was blindsided by what a strong year this was for music. The number of new albums I listened to this year didn't vary much, but there was more to enjoy than I did in 2008 or 2009. I typically check out new sounds concurrently with whatever year I'm analyzing for my monthly music blog, and it got to a point about three or four months ago that I putting more energy in my year-end list than whatever else I listening to. There's a running theme to this year's list: established artists releasing career-defining albums, familiar faces with seemingly nothing left to prove but plenty of ways to prove that assumption wrong, newer acts challenging themselves in unexpected ways, a weird sense of fearlessness and a general lack of inhibition. Of course, you never would've heard any of this brilliance on CHR radio, but that's a discussion for another time.
On that note, I defeated myself somewhat and expanded this list to 20 albums. Like I said before, there was too much in 2010 that I enjoyed that had to merit some type of mention. I tried to make this list as complete as possible, though there are a few discs I still need to check out (sorry, Janelle Monae).
1. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire. I'm probably one of the few people on the planet that thought the Fire's 2007 album Neon Bible was better than their 2004 debut Funeral. It wasn't a mere extension of ideas, I argued, but the next logical step. Their third effort, The Suburbs, raises the bar even higher. Inspired mostly by the Butler brothers' Houston upbringing, this is a concept album about a world of nostalgia that may not really exist. The Suburbs is whimsical without being too quirky, cynical but not too apathetic, and the right amount of sentimental.
2. Brothers, The Black Keys. What if the White Stripes had a more pure blues-rock sound, and was a real band rather than a vehicle for Jack White's guitar noodling? Enter The Black Keys, a visceral, Ohio-based guitar-drums duo with a yen for '60s soul and psychedlic-period Howlin' Wolf. Their third proper album is 15 tracks of scruffy, growling blues-punk whose appeal never wears out. This is by far the best music produced in Muscle Shoals, AL in decades.
3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West. Kanye might very well be the most enigmatic superstar in the world. When he doesn't keep his ego in check, he's an annoying, attention-hungry jerk. When he shuts his mouth and gets to business, he's an indisputable genius. His fifth album is paid as advertised; no album in any genre has been so sonically sparwling yet so singular in its madness anywhere in recent memory. It's as if Kanye set a Thomas Pynchon novel to music...
4. Congratulations, MGMT
5. This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem
6. Contra, Vampire Weekend
7. Treats, Sleigh Bells
8. King of the Beach, Wavves
9. High Violet, The National
10. Together, The New Pornographers. After four albums of fascinating power-pop/indie-rock workshopping by a confederacy of similar-minded musicians, Neko Case, AC Newman, et al. finally begin to sound like a real band on the fittingly named Together. A supergroup in concept only, the Pornographers' sound is now less of a buffet and more of a potluck dinner, a scrappy feast of catchy songs and whimsical songcraft.
11. Broken Bells, Broken Bells
12. Odd Blood, Yeasayer
13. Beat the Devil's Tattoo, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
14. Teen Dream, Beach House
15. The Monitor, Titus Andronicus. The unofficial award for most improved band goes to this New Jersey-based quartet, whose nondescript garage-rock debut in 2008 bears precious little resemblance to their stunning second effort. An entire album of songs about the Civil War, played by what sounds like the best Pogues cover band on the planet, should've been too weird to work yet it demolishes what low expectations such a far-fetched idea might garner. I guess all you need is a little ambition.
16. Plastic Beach, Gorillaz
17. One Life Stand, Hot Chip
18. Infinite Arms, Band of Horses
19. The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot
20. /\/\/\Y/\ (a/k/a Maya), M.I.A. One of the most undeservedly maligned albums of the past year, the Sri Lankan alt-dance star reinforces her knack for lyrical tongue-twisters, and that motherhood and marriage hasn't quashed her desire for a challenge. The percussion work on this disc is raw and often relentless, perhaps too sonically brutal for certain tastes. Beneath all the chaos, however are some instantly satisfying yet intentionally imperfect tracks.
Coolest Gimmick: The compact disc of The Black Keys' "Brothers" changes colors while the disc is playing.
Worst Album of 2010: Rebirth, Lil' Wayne. There is little denying Weezy's gifts as a rapper, but when it comes to dabbles in other genres --especially this somewhat anticipated, mostly embarassing foray into rap-rock-- even a genius should stick to what he knows best. Worse yet, amidst piles of insipid guitar solos and gaudy overproduction, the wit and wacky wordplay of his previous work is nowhere to be found on Rebirth. Young Tune declares himself a "funky monkey" on the track "Da Da Da," and had that track found a greater audience, that alone probably would've set rock, hip-hop, and race relations back 50 years.
"Symphonies," Dan Black feat. Kid Cudi
"Fuck You," Cee-Lo
"Fuck You," Cee-Lo
"One Way Road," The John Butler Trio
"When My Time Comes," Dawes
"You And Your Heart," Jack Johnson
"In The Sun," She & Him
"Swim Until You Can't See Land," Frightened Rabbit
"Bushwick Blues," Delta Spirit
"Early Morning Wake-Up Call," The Hives
"National Ransom," Elvis Costello
Worst Song of 2010: "Hey Soul Sister," Train. If I have to hear this song one more time, so help me God...
After a weak 2009, music videos enjoyed a minor renaissance in 2010. Though second-hand VHS downloads of old MTV videos have been a staple on YouTube et al. since the site's inception, it wasn't until the last year or so that video directors really took advantage of the medium. Better late than never, I guess.
1. "This Too Shall Pass," OK Go. When I was in eighth grade, I was assigned a Rube Goldberg-type project in science class. My final assignment was a complete mess, and I earned one of the few F's of my academic career. It was not until after I saw this video that I finally got over that humiliation.
2. "Tightrope," Janelle Monae feat. Big Boi. '60s soul meets 21st-century hip-hop in this well-choreographed clip.
3. "Love The Way You Lie," Eminem feat. Rihanna. A big part of Marshall Mathers' renaissance in 2010 was this VH1/Fuse staple, starring Megan Fox and the guy who played Charlie on "Lost" as lovers that shouldn't be together yet can't stay apart.
4. "Drunk Girls," LCD Soundsystem. Word to the wise: this is what happens when you piss off a bunch of guys in panda costumes.
5. "Madder Red," Yeasayer. A shot-for-shot remake of "Old Yeller," except its four minutes long, shot in modern-day Los Angeles, and stars Kristen Bell and a one-eyed alien blob.
6. "Dog Days Are Over" (Version 2), Florence + The Machine. The British singer-songwriter jumps around in Kabuki garb in this strange yet alluring clip.
7. "Tighten Up" (Version 1), The Black Keys. Rawr! Funky puppet dinosaurs!
8. "Giving Up The Gun," Vampire Weekend. Tennis, anyone?
9. "White Knuckles," OK Go. It's not uncommon for an artist to have multiple clips in one year, but two outright great clips in less than 12 months is quite a feat.
10. "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood," St. Vincent. An early preview of the upcoming IFC comedy series "Portlandia" finds Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Carrie Brownstein as prickly lesbian bookstore owners and the singer-songwriter as their unwitting foil.
Next Week: the year in TV, and my final thoughts on 2010.