Top 10 in ’10

The RN&R arts editor picks his favorite albums of 2010

Unfortunately, many of my favorite songs this year—like “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo Green and “Born Free” by M.I.A.; “Brian Eno” by MGMT and “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter—appeared on albums that were rather uneven overall. The music industry, or what remains of it, has definitely shifted toward emphasizing singles rather than full-length albums. But to me, the album is still king. The song sequence, the pace, the variety of statements, structures and sounds—a good album is more than just the sum of its songs.

The following is a list of my favorite albums of the year. It’s a purely subjective list, though I did ask my friends, both on Facebook and in real life, for their recommendations and picks. Though I duly checked out nearly every record somebody recommended, the final critical selections were all mine.

Honorable mentions:

15. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor

14. No Age: Everything in Between

13. Liars: Sisterworld

12. LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening

11. Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

10. The Fall Your Future Our Clutter

The Fall’s Mark E. Smith has made a career out of being rock’s resident grumpy old man since the ’70s. His coarse husk of a voice is only capable of two notes: “uh” and “ah.” It’s an acquired taste, but addictive as all hell. If I’m in the mood for The Fall, nothing else will satisfy. Though they average at least one record a year, this is the best Fall record since 2003’s The Real New Fall LP. The last line on this record, when Smith whispers, “You don’t deserve rock ’n’ roll,” is one of most spine-tingling recorded moments of the year.

9. The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights

Sure, it’s just a live album of previously released songs, but c’mon, it rocks with scorching heat, and some of these versions are better than the studio originals. The frantic take on the Citizen Kane tribute “The Union Forever” is jaw-dropping.

8. Gonjasufi A Sufi and a Killer

This is a record that’s too eccentric to classify. The music is sort of loosely descended from hip hop, but the only tradition Gonjasufi really seems to belong to is the weirdo, outer space, outsider non-tradition that includes MF Doom, Lee “Scratch” Perry, George Clinton, Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra.

7. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River True Love Cast Out All Evil

The comeback of the year. Roky Erickson was the singer and rhythm guitarist of the iconic ’60s Texas psychedelic rock band The 13th Floor Elevators. His life since then has been a litany of tragedies: drug problems, arrests, institutions for the criminally insane, fractured families, mental problems, health problems, dental problems, more mental problems. Erickson’s life is detailed in this record’s excellent liner notes by Okkervil River’s Will Sheff. (I’d also recommend watching the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me.) But the back story wouldn’t matter, if the music wasn’t any good, and fortunately this is an excellent album of songs about loss and redemption.

6. Clipd Beaks To Realize

I’d love to take drugs all the time, but I’m a grownup with a lot of responsibilities and very little free time. So instead of taking drugs, I listen to music like this intense, droney, convulsive slice of neo-psychedelia. One comfortable hour of tripping out and no hangover.

5. Arcade Fire The Suburbs

It might seem strange, or snobby, but I’d almost classify this record as a guilty pleasure. The reactionary in me would like to simply dismiss Arcade Fire for the egregious crime of being overrated, which they are, but for some reason, I can’t stop listening to this record. It’s a very cohesive album. The songs take a central theme—living in the ’burbs and feeling alienated about it—and explore it from a variety of angles, sometimes with anger, sometimes with sadness, sometimes with rebellious joy.

4. Swans My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

Swans frontman Michael Gira is like a fire-and-brimstone preacher who actually encourages his congregation to sin themselves to hell. The band’s history stretches back to the early ’80s, touching on abrasive post-punk, repetitive drones, gruesome sludge, and ethereal, apocalyptic elegies. Gira disbanded Swans in the ’90s to focus on Angels of Light, a band that explores similar themes of religion and decadence with a more acoustic, gospel folk palette. This new album by the reconstituted Swans combines the songwriting sophistication of Angels of Light with the Swans’ old-school, bloodthirsty, orcish clamoring at the gates.

3. Beach House Teen Dream

Writing songs, like any artform, is a series of decisions: What chord should comes next? When should the drums come in? What’s the best rhyme with “horse”? Sometimes these decisions are made consciously, other times, they’re strictly intuitive. I love all the decisions that Beach House makes, but that’s not the only reason I love this duo; there’s also the simple matter of singer Victoria Legrand’s voice, an alto with casual, ancient authority.

2. Grinderman Grinderman 2

The self-tilted, first Grinderman album from 2007 sounds distinctly like a side project: Nick Cave and a few of his Bad Seeds blowing off some steam between gigs, playing midlife-crisis rock songs. The best song on that first album is called “No Pussy Blues,” which is an indication of how serious a project it seemed at that point. This new record blows the roof off: ear-stinging guitars and unabashed sleaze—“My baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster, two great big humps and then I’m gone”—but a lot more craftsmanship than the first album. My favorite track is “When My Baby Comes,” a song that, for its first 3 minutes and 10 seconds, keeps its proverbial other shoe on the verge of dropping.

1. Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I know I’m not bucking any critical trends by proclaiming this album the best of the year—it’s already appeared at or near the top of many year-end lists, and it received a perfect 10 rating from Pitchfork—but it’s really a monumental achievement. It’s a huge-sounding record with a cast of thousands of big-name guest stars—everybody from Jay-Z to Elton John, Bon Iver to Chris Rock—that still manages to be incredibly intimate and personal, precariously balancing bravado and anxiety. It’s worth noting that Nicki Minaj’s verse in “Monster” is one of the weirdest, wildest, coolest things ever put on a record. The whole album inspires compulsive listening, and Kanye is such a divisive figure—probably more famous for his boorish behavior than his music—that once you decide you’re with him, you just want to be with him all the way.