It would be very easy to jump on the “music sucks” train most folks seem to have crowded onto, or would it be? Truthfully, my list of the best music of the year was harder to narrow down this year than it’s been in at least half a decade. So hard that if you ask me to compile this same list in 24 hours, it’s very likely that said list will contain 3 or 4 different titles from the ones that currently comprise it, and in completely different order, too!
Good music’s certainly out there if you have the patience to look for it, and considering that my tastes generally run reasonably mainstream, you didn’t even have to look that hard to find the good stuff.
My Top 10 albums of 2010 run the gamut from dance-pop to blues-rock, although I’d have to say that this year’s most pleasantly surprising musical development this year was the creative resurgence of hip-hop. In addition to the titles that you find on the list below, hip-hop artists ranging from B.o.B. to Big Boi to Drake to k-os all made excellent albums. For a genre that’s barely produced three or four good albums a year for the past 4 or 5 years, 2010 was a godsend. So, it’s appropriate that we start the list off with a hip-hop album, right? Let’s go.
10. Nas & Damian Marley, Distant Relatives (Def Jam)
Whoever thought of the idea to pair a rap legend with the son of the greatest reggae musician of all time deserves a raise. If Nas himself thought of the idea, someone should pay off his alimony. As a second banana as well as a producer, Marley brings out the best in Nas, and the result is the most musically enjoyable album of his career, in addition to being one of the most lyrically focused. Nas’s former foe Jay-Z tried to do the peanut butter/chocolate thing several times with the likes of R. Kelly and Linkin Park, but Distant Relatives might just be the most successful cross-genre album length collaboration to emerge from hip-hop in the genre’s entire history.
9. Steven Page, Page One (Zoe)
I don’t know a lot about divorce, but I know that there are never even splits in a breakup. The former Barenaked Lady(ie?)’s Page One proved that even when there are four people on the other side of the divorce, one guy can still walk away with the best deal all by himself (of course, this is all musically speaking). Chock full of the witty lyricism that has become his trademark and armed with a voice that’s capable of subtle nuance as well as being able to shake the paintings off of walls, Page One is a triumphant effort that left Steven’s former bandmates sputtering in his dust (again-musically speaking.)
8. John Legend & the Roots, Wake Up! (Columbia)
As a general rule, I hate covers albums. They’re usually unimaginative and uninspired. Leave it to one of my generation’s best soul singers and the best band in hip hop-nay, the best band in music to go against the grain. This hard-hitting collection of reimagined soul tunes from the Seventies (with a couple of stragglers from the early Eighties) is so strong it almost makes you forget to question why no one in R&B writes songs like these anymore.
7. Band of Horses, Infinite Arms (Fat Possum/Columbia)
Easy way to make me melt? Sing in harmony. Featuring the most melodically sound music of their career, Band of Horses broke through to the mainstream with their third album, Infinite Arms. Hearing these songs performed in a live and intimate setting made me love the album even more, even though the recent video for “Dilly” is one of the more head-scratching clips of 2010. Infinite Arms is definitely the sunny-day-long-drive-to-nowhere album of the year.
6. Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL Recordings)
This one was a grower. My first couple of listens to Vampire Weekend’s sophomore album made me feel like they’d succumbed to the sophomore jinx. Somewhere along the line, though, the lightbulb went off, everything clicked, and insert yet another cliché that has to do with sudden realization here. I’m not pretentious enough to explore VW’s songs for deeper meaning. Hell, the second I heard “Horchata” I went right over to Wikipedia (something I did a couple of times with their first album, too). Even if I can’t tell what some of their songs are about, I can tell you that Contra was the essential summer-listening album at my house all summer.
5. Robyn, Body Talk (Cherrytree/Interscope)
Supplanted a decade ago by Britney and Christina, Robyn might never match the pop tarts she paved the way for in terms of commercial success, but she makes better music than both of them put together. In an era when most dance music pulses but has no heart, Robyn makes songs that elicit an emotional reaction even when you’re done shaking your ass. For my money, “Dancing on My Own” is the best single of the year (and would justify this album’s existence on this list on it’s own) and Body Talk proves that there’s more where that came from, whether Robyn is channeling Missy Elliott (on “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do”) or singing Norwegian folk songs in her native language.
4. The Black Keys, Brothers (Nonesuch)
Crossing over done right 101: I’d been aware of the Black Keys for quite some time, but seeing the video for “Tighten Up” unlocked something in my head and caused me to further investigate them. I purchased Brothers, listened to it a handful of times, fell into total music-nerd love, and over the next 4-6 weeks went back and purchased every album in the Keys catalog in addition to Dan Auerbach’s solo album. That’s how good Brothers is, and that’s why in some cases, getting a song on mainstream radio (a medium in which many more ears will be exposed to your music, or-in my case-a passive fan will turn into an active one) isn’t such a bad idea.
3. The Roots, How I Got Over (Def Jam)
The Roots are one of those bands that I’ve come to take for granted. Not only have they served up musical brilliance on a platter consistently for nearly a decade and a half, but they’ve given me pretty much the only reason to watch late night TV I’ve had since Arsenio Hall went off the air in 1994. To say How I Got Over is an exceptional Roots disc doesn’t do justice to how brilliant the album or the band is. Black Thought, ?uestlove and co. are simply the torchbearers for musicianship, intelligence and maturity in hip-hop and have amassed the most consistent catalog of any artist, regardless of genre, in music today.
2. Gil Scott-Heron, I’m New Here (XL Recordings)
In the sixteen years since Gil Scott-Heron last appeared in the new release bin at your local record store, a lot happened-both to music and to Gil personally. Without explicitly naming the troubles that plagued him over the last decade and a half (drug addiction and incarceration being chief among them), I’m New Here finds the famed poet/singer/proto-rapper channeling years of hard living and aged wisdom into a gripping thirty-minute disc that resonates with you long after the artist’s voice has faded into air.
1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam)
Say “Kanye West” to the average person, and I bet many of the adjectives that come to mind have nothing to do with his music. Hell, I’m as big a Kanye fan as there is and some not-quite-pleasant adjectives come to mind when I think of him. Even with that in mind, no matter how big his ego is and no matter how much of a crybaby he can be sometimes, no one has made albums as good as he has in the seven years since his debut. Fantasy is as compelling an argument as any that sometimes you have to tune out the personality and appreciate the music for what it is, because this album’s genius. For those who purchase music track-by-track and don’t quite understand where the magic is, it should also be noted that Fantasy is meant to be listened to as a complete album.