Though I didn't listen to nearly as many albums this year as I do normally, I still managed to find a number of impressive works by various groups, many of which I'd never heard before. I don't know enough about music and musical trends to break down the musical landscape of the year in the way I do film, but here at least are my picks for the finest albums of the year, a selection of rap, pop and rock tunes that dug into the recesses of my mind in the most maddening ways.
1. Kanye West — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
With rock stars now divided between the introspective or, in the case of such megastars as Bono, the preaching, Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a refreshing bit of self-congratulation from the best egomaniac in pop music today. Mixing the earnestness of his previous album with the whirlwind of self-mythologizing bravado from his early stuff, Yeezy makes not only his best album but a masterpiece of mainstream hip-hop, a genre that's been hard up for truly great records over the last few years. Not a single song fails, and several could vie for the title of best Kanye song, from the King Crimson-quoting deification of "Power" to the guest star smorgasbord of "Monster" to the simultaneously plaintive and bitingly satiric "Runaway." I've always liked Kanye's braggadocio more than his music -- even though I've enjoyed that too -- but this is a modern classic.
2. Big Boi — Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Outkast's less-praised beats André 3000 to the solo album punch and produces a work of Southern hip-hop that, were it not for that pesky Yeezy, would have been far and away the best rap album to hit the mainstream in years. But a respectable second is no damnation of Sir Lucious Left Foot's copious offerings, a carefully selected set of tunes to get any club hopping at an instant. Yet the lyrical range he covers is astounding, from the pure, egomaniacal dance track "Shutterbugg" to racial politics in "Fo' Yo' Sorrows." Through it all, he maintains a deft flow and a devastating wit, and he boasts perhaps the finest production job of the year. He may be overdue for the critical raves thrown at him this year, but at least we all finally realized that Big Boi casts a long shadow.
3. Deerhunter — Halcyon Digest
Deerhunter's balance between the aggression of shoegaze and its softer alter ego, dream pop, crystallized in 2007's Cryptograms, and the band have further honed it ever since. Lacking the off-the-wall, schizophrenic heights of Microcastle/Weird Era Cont., Halcyon Digest nevertheless presents Deerhunter, for the first time, without the waffle. Never have Bradford Cox's reflections on mortality been more direct, as on "Basement Scene," where he cants the usual youth rhetoric "I don't want to get old" until he realizes what that truly means and changes his tune. Closing with a tribute to the late Jay Reatard that ends on as frustratingly curt and maddening a note as the musician's life, Halcyon Digest may not add anything major to Deerhunter's sound, but it does demonstrate how much more powerful they can be with a formula most would be happy to call fully developed.
4. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — The Social Network
At once a work of postmodern, post-digital age electronica and a throwback to Harold Faltermeyer scores of '80s action movies, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score for The Social Network is as masterful, forward-thinking yet reverent to art history as the movie it complements. The score is sinister, bubbling and hissing like the industrial age in its death throes as we move into the new age: the digital era, where the only industry is virtual. Electronic scores are hit-and-miss, and even when they work (e.g. Vangelis' work for Blade Runner), the score chiefly reflects a certain aspect of the atmosphere. Reznor and Ross manage to truly dig their processed beeps and static into the fabric of the film itself, not an occasionally aligning moodscape but a true expression of both feeling and narrative. Besides, it also works as one of the best standalone records of the year.
5. Agalloch — Marrow of the Spirit
By far Agalloch's most musically accomplished work to date, Marrow of the Spirit shows the Portland instant legends returning to black metal just to show how far beyond it they've evolved. While it lacks the seeping atmosphere of the group's masterpiece, The Mantle, the new album deftly mixes the band's Emersonian folk with a Nordic edge, capturing the evil and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in a way that would terrify every Twihard making a road trip to Forks, Wash. These guys may play fast, but what impresses me the most about them is how they can stretch only a few chords into 10-, 12-, 17-minute sojourns that are in no way minimalistic but dense, ever-shifting and adventurous. Besides the honing of instrumental craft, the vocals have never sounded better either, from the articulate rasps to those chilling moments of clean voice that roll over the sound as if John Haughm had been taking lessons from Mikael Åkerfeldt. The most consistently rewarding band in modern metal strikes again.
6. Flying Lotus — Cosmogramma
Flying Lotus' blend of electronic and jazz has never been so pressing. It's an album layered with detail and conflicting noises even its quietest moments, a densely packed web of carefully programmed sounds and the tension that only live performers can bring, especially Steven Bruner's thunderous bass, which has the laser-like precision of Robert Fripp's guitar. Jazz, techno, IDM, even the hints of blaxploitation swirl into the mix, homogenized into a unified artistic vision without sacrificing the identity of each genre incorporated. It's Steve Ellison's most cohesive work to date, and also his most musically accomplished. Considering he was already ahead of the curve, I wonder if anyone can catch him now.
7. The Roots — How I Got Over
The most consistent group in hip-hop make an album that stands out even among their discography. Taking a page from all the indie bands The Roots have seen and occasionally played with on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, their latest is more stripped down and spacious than some of the hard-edged and dense records they've done. But the room only allows Black Thought to expand, laying down some of his finest and most direct rhymes. How I Got Over is perhaps the finest album to come along since the 2008 election to touch upon the flip-side of Obama's optimism (best seen in earnestness, if not quality, on Springsteen's Working on a Dream). It gets into the disillusionment, the frustration, the fear of the fringe that exploded in fury. As ever Black Thought can be bluntly real and abstractly allegorical in the same savage line, and nothing sums things up quite like "Got immunized for both flus/But I'm still sick."
8. The National — High Violet
After crafting one of the seminal alienated youth albums of the decade with Boxer, Matt Berninger and The National shift gears, asking of the audience that they break themselves of their obsession with the adolescent and consider the even more chilling meditations of middle age. Now Berninger doesn't simply croon about the feelings of isolation in a world where interaction occurs mainly in the abstract of the Internet, he introduces his fears as a family man. With more of an overt Springsteen vibe than ever before, High Violet retains the core National sound but develops a new lyrical direction. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" has the tragic air of misery in hindsight that makes Springsteen's "The River" so haunting, while "Afraid of Everyone" updates the sense of loneliness and fear that undercut Boxer's "Mistaken for Strangers" to reflect the heightened terror of a man trying to defend his family from the same uncaring world. It may lack the rawer, more personal feeling of Boxer, but then I say that as a 21-year-old to whom that album more directly appeals. High Violet is an album I intend to revisit over the years, as I imagine it will have more and more to say to me as I grow older.
9. Buckethead — Shadows Between the Sky
Another year, another seven Buckethead albums, including an all-banjo set and two multi-disc box sets made with Brian Mantia and Melissa Reese. Of the latest crop, the best is easily Shadows Between the Sky, a release already on its way to to classic status even among the treasure trove of Buckethead's canon. For all his guitar wizardry and electronic noodling, there's an ineffable grace to Buckethead's acoustic and soft electric side, from the beautiful Colma to the darkly ambient Electric Tears. Made during one of the guitarist's periods of illness, Shadows is somber but not bleak, the assured work of a man who has had to ponder mortality before and hasn't let it get him down (did I mention the six other albums he released in 2010?). The use of harmonics is gorgeous, and a surprisingly sophisticated bass element -- the weak element in every Buckethead project that doesn't involve Les Claypool or Jonas Hellborg -- is both contrapuntal and suggestive in its own right, hinting at the darker energies Buckethead holds at bay. Brian Patrick Carroll has put out 29 albums and three box sets under his moniker alone since 1992, and Shadows Between the Sky stands proud not only among them but taken with the innumerable collaborations he's done in his 20 years of work.
10. Robyn — Body Talk
Technically a compilation of her two 2010 EPs with some new tracks that would make their way onto a third, Robyn's Body Talk is nevertheless the finest pop album in some time, at least since Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster if not Robyn's own 2005 eponymous effort. Where Gaga has appropriated Eurotrash into her raunchy, hissing garishness, the Swedish elf puts her efforts toward something more beautiful and direct. Her lyrics are some of the most forward-thinking I've heard in a long time from pop: take her novel approach to the love triangle on "Call Your Girlfriend," in which she steals away another's man but gently nurses their breakup to minimize hurt feelings. And listen to her genuine pain on "Dancing on My Own" as she finds herself on the other side of that line, watching the object of her desire happy with someone else. The Body Talk EPs were already tight bursts of perfectly chosen pop, and together the songs lose none of their immediacy.
11. Beach House — Teen Dream
Beach House's third LP is as delightful as dream pop gets. Victoria Legrand's voice is not particularly accomplished, but it is perfectly suited to the ethereal roll of the genre, her vocals drifting and dissipating in the wind in half-remembered gusts. Equally rewarding as soft background noise and as a work worthy of dedicated listening, Teen Dream may not reach the same dream pop heights of The xx's powerful debut last year, but its lilting, immaculately paced melodies make for one of the best listening experiences of the year.
12. Matthew Dear — Black City
Matthew Dear's Black City is a microhouse take on David Bowie, and the range of primal and processed sounds covered in its length explicitly recalls the African-tinged Krautrock that made Lodger such a warped delight. Black City is as tortured and grim as you might expect from the title, filled with funky beats that crawl and creep. It's danceable but also unsettling, and I didn't know whether to sway to the excellent "You Put a Smell on Me" or book a therapy session. The album's standout, the demented disco epic "Little People (Black City)," Dear's Scary Monsters-era Bowie vocals eat themselves, moving in spoken-word rhymes that convey Station to Station-era desperation. Black City is one of the year's albums most worthy of repeat listens, but perhaps that's a side effect of its schizophrenic and paranoid atmosphere.
13. How to Dress Well — Love Remains
Tom Krell's pet project evolved from its incessant stream of EPs to a fully-formed statement that blends lo-fi ambience and classic R&B. Love Remains' intervallic leaps between the sparse ("Suicide Dream 2") to the melodic ("Youn Won't Need Me Where I'm Goin',""Lover's Start") never breaks How to Dress Well from its prevailing atmosphere of moody emptiness. The unlikeliest album of the year, Love Remains is also all the more rewarding for somehow pulling itself off.
14. John Grant — Queen of Denmark
Former Czars frontman John Grant emerges from the ashes of the dream pop/country outfit to team up with '70s soft rock throwbacks Midlake. Queen of Denmark is a purging for the immensely underappreciated singer, a way for him to come to terms with growing up gay in a conservative community. From the hysterical breakup song "Where Dreams Go to Die" -- featuring the catty-as-hell line "I regret the day your lovely carcass caught my eye" -- to the bizarre pop-culture-as-autobiography "Sigourney Weaver," Queen of Denmark is savage but dear, melding Grant's haunting baritone with Midlake's spare but effective orchestration to convey lingering anger and hardening regret. Especially powerful are the anti-religious screed "Jesus Hates Faggots" and the closing title track, a final purge of Grant's hangups and the most beautiful song on the album. The Czars were unjustly neglected during their run, and Grant proves just as masterful striking out on his own. Seek him out, please.
15. Titus Andronicus — The Monitor
A boozy blend of Bruce Springsteen's working-man directness and The Pogues' loutish folk-punk, Titus Andronicus' The Monitor loosely configures post-Obama political frustration around Civil War imagery, perhaps a commentary on how we've progressed but also a statement on the renewal of tensions based at least partly on extreme racial tension. But the chief delight of The Monitor is in its rousing, anthemic blend of sloppiness and razor-sharp writing, an Irish wake and subsequent angry hangover. "The enemy is everywhere," barks Patrick Stickles throughout, but this buzzing crash of punk will drive the demons away like beasts from fire.
Honorable Mentions: Arcade Fire — The Suburbs; Johnny Cash — American VI: Ain't No Grave; Marc Ribot — Silent Movies; Richard Thompson — Dream Attic; Sufjan Stevens — The Age of Adz; The Fall — Your Future Our Clutter; The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz & Percussion Ensemble — Miles Away; Vampire Weekend — Contra