2010: Albums of the Year

How to begin summing up this most busy year, not only in music, but personally as well? Developments begun in mid-2009 came to fruition this year, namely a move to a new home and getting married. These were developments I had foreseen as putting music on the backburner and leading to an abbreviated list to commemorate. Instead, a second development in late 2009 led to a veritable destruction of musical boundaries for me, and 2010 became a year quite unlike any I've experienced since at least 2004: new methods of downloading allowed me to not only keep abreast of (most) new musical developments, but also catch up with old classics. I spent considerable time this year exploring old Krautrock, Dream Theater, classic 70's soul, and electronic music from the past five years. But above all, I spent a great deal of time immersed in releases from the past year, and much of the albums on this list are from a certain genre which will become clear as you read on.

As is inevitable with most years well into November, I become disillusioned with the list of top albums I had created and seek skipping posting it altogether, blaming fatigue, overexposure, and a host of lame excuses that really only add up to laziness. The year-end critical consensus that unanimously named My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the greatest album of the past century nearly soured me on the list altogether, but when the Grammys deemed Teenage Dream one of the five best albums released in the last year, I knew I had to man the fort and be a bastion for Music over Commerce, even if only for my handful of readers. So I thank you all for sticking around, and I hope you find something you love here.

I spend most of the year ensconced in my niches of music, and when year-end lists start appearing, I am ready to explore missed gems. Needless to say, a lot of this list has been added in the past month, and I hope readers will take the time to explore some of these for yourselves, for there are truly exceptional albums here. I am also embracing the present, and included with each review is a link to one of the songs from the album I find outstanding. I would not presume to let one song do the talking for an entire album, but after reading so much hot air, you deserve a break and get to listen to the actual thing rather than read an inept writer try to describe it. Onward and upward!

50. Massive Attack, Heligoland
It has been a long time in the wilderness for Bristol trip-hop legends Massive Attack: written off after 2003's mostly insipid 100th Window, Daddy G rejoined the group, got their Rolodex out for an appropriately massive list of collaborators, and made their best album since 1998 (quite an obvious fact). Although they didn't make the same splash as Portishead in '08, there can be no doubt that Heligoland is a work from a band still hungry to stay in the game, and they continue to play to their strength: re-structuring their sound for whoever sings for them. Tunde Adebimpe, Guy Garvey, Martina Topley-Bird, Damon Albarn and Horace Andy all stop by; Adrian Utley, Dave Sitek, and Tim Goldsworthy provide co-production, and if the early swagger is gone, it has been replaced by an age-appropriate simmer. A bit of a grower, but worth the investment.

Paradise Circus

49. Yeasayer, Odd Blood
All Hour Cymbals was a great find for me in '08, and it was a thrill to see Yeasayer enjoy some well-deserved success after their left turn into Prince-ly electro-pop. This was a rare January release that built up steady acclaim through the year, buoyed by colorful videos, acclaimed live shows, and great word of mouth. Although it misses the rustic charms and relaxed atmosphere of their debut, it does streamline that album's tendencies to meander and turns them into radio-conquering choruses. "The Children" remains a befuddling opener, but any album with songs like "Ambling Alp", "O.N.E." and "Rome" can be deemed a great listen.

Ambling Alp

48. Tame Impala, Innerspeaker
Taking their influence from the eternally youthful psychedelic fountain, these Aussie rockers know that texture is just as important as songs, not that they shy away from those either. Innerspeaker is an immaculately produced set of psychedelic rock duality: fuzzy guitars, sharp drums and spacey synth sounds coupled with actual structures and melodies. "It's Not Meant To Be" and "Alter Ego" have memorable choruses, and the band is unafraid to let loose with lengthy jams like "Expectations" and "Runaway Houses City Clouds". A solid rock album to relax to.

Alter Ego

47. Emeralds, Does It Look Like I'm Here?
After dozens of releases in the past few years (anything from limited vinyl pressings to CD-Rs to tapes), the Cleveland experimental trio have signed to electronic bigwig Editions Mego, and appropriately honed their sound into something that could crossover into a minor celebrity - remember, this is the label that is home to Fennesz. The band's woozy analog synth assault is anchored by Mark McGuire's clean guitar, and Robert Fripp would not be a bad reference point to most of the tones here, as would most of Brian Eno's ambient works. Stand-outs are hard to describe ("The Cycle of Abuse"'s hypnotic arpeggios; "Access Granted"'s sheer beauty; the barely-perceptible melody underneath the helicopter effects of "It Doesn't Arrive"), but the album as a whole is wonderously cohesive and warm.

Candy Shoppe

46. Autechre, Oversteps
It has been a LONG time since we could use words such as "Autechre" and "accessible" in a single sentence without also including the word "not". From Confield to Untilted, Sean Booth and Rob Brown have been on a singular mission to create electronic music as thoroughly experimental and often unlistenable as is humanly possible. Oversteps is their most ambient release since 1994's Amber (an era Brown has labelled "cheesy"), though it does not retreat to such easy listening: they are clearly still in a highly experimental mode, just in a more ambient and pleasant vein. Oblique track names still abound, there are still moments of head scratching madness, and in the end, you are not sure whether you loved the last hour you spent with it, but one thing is clear: you want to listen to it again.


45. The-Dream, Love King
The undisputed king of hip-hop/R&B, he of the unbelievably dense synth textures, ear-caressing drums and unquenchable libido, Terius Nash returns with another dose of good loving and untamed sexual innuendos. Although the sagging nine minutes of back-to-back "Sex Intelligence" and its remix show a chink in the armor, he remains a master songcraft first and foremost. That he can toss off five bonus tracks which are better than much of the album shows a healthy bit of arrogance, but "F.I.L.A", "Abyss" and especially "Yamaha" are as good as any chart-topping hit he's penned in the past, and maintain his reputation for keeping the best tracks for himself.


44. The Black Dog, Music For Real Airports
A direct response to Brian Eno's ambient album of the similar name, the Black Dog disown Eno's work as overly optimistic and explore the contrast between the airport's ideal (a futuristic gateway to the world) and its reality (dehumanizing and contributing to the downward spiral of society, "the way that airports tend to reduce us to worthless pink blobs of flesh," as the press literature says). It is a weighty topic, and one perhaps lessened without its physical art installation, but the album stands on its own. It is an impressive sonic palette, as feelings of oppression, delay and tragedy are deftly expressed through ambience, sharp percussion and ever-whirling atmosphere. "M1" and "Terminal EMA" start off with a gentle ambient drone, but soon into "Disinformation Desk" the drama mounts and does not let up; even without knowing the concept, track titles like "Passport Control", "Strip Light Hate", and "Sleep Deprivation" clue you into the mood. The greatness of the album comes when you leave the airport to "Business Car Park 9" and wonder, where do you go from here?

Sleep Deprivation 2

43. Alcest, Ecailles de lune
The nocturnal flipside to the pastoral 2007 album Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde, French metal artist Neige crafts a rich tapestry of sound that could be at home on 4AD during its peak, and often comes across like My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive with bursts of black metal singing. He exhibits an increasing skill with melding his black metal influences with shoegaze and dream-pop, and the songwriting hits new heights on "Solar Song", where the beautifully multitracked vocals indeed scrape the sun. The stunning progression from his debut to here can only leave us giddy with anticipation for what may come next.

Solar Song

42. Eleven Tigers, Clouds Are Mountains
Untrue looms large over recent electronic music. Its murky beats, R&B samples and brooding atmosphere has alternately salvaged and doomed dubstep: it showed how it could be a viable genre, but also set an unreachable bar for everyone else to clear. One of the most unique dubstep albums in the genre's brief history, Lithuanian producer Eleven Tigers forgoes the traditional sound for something warmer: ambient drum pads and IDM-style synths that wouldn't sound out of place on a Boards Of Canada album. He also puts the focus on transition and continuity rather than individual songs - there are various crossfades, some up to 40 seconds long, to create a seamless suite akin to a well-plotted DJ mix. Truly exceptional.


41. Enslaved, Axioma Ethica Odini
Continuing their progression from Norwegian black metal stalwarts to, um, still Norwegian prog-metal troubadours, Enslaved seem to finally have figured out how to capture their legendary live intensity on record. The album bursts out of the gates with a welcome intensity, but their prog influences slowly start to surface as the music continues: the expressive guitar solos, an increased amount of clean singing (though plenty of the old snarls), and an impressive mastery of dynamics that many young bands would do well to study. Supremely satisfying metal.


40. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
Sufjan's latest album was hinted at in his previous works after 2005: the classical concept album about a New York freeway, and this year's All Delighted People EP, but even with those warning shots, Adz still astounded. This is a career-defining work, a hard left turn into a day-glo, Auto-Tuned cacophony of ideas, culminating in the impossibly long 25-minute "Impossible Soul". It is a long way from Illinois, and makes a case for Stevens being a restless experimenter, a brave troubadour unwilling to flinch away from an idea, no matter if it fails him. Whether this is an album to cherish will be figured out in time; right now, I find it is an album to keep at arm's length and admire from a distance.


39. Iron Maiden, The Final Frontier
It's an axiom of rock music that if you can't play as fast as before, just play better. Or at least it should be. Showing every aging rocker how to do so gracefully, Iron Maiden are back, in their 35th year, with their fifteenth album, and the renaissance they've undergone since 2000 is as strong as ever. Disposing of their speed attack, they play with a stately grandeur, a stylishly prog-influenced metal where songs are given the freedom to fly as they please, occasionally reaching double-digit markers. In addition, the suite of songs from "Isle of Avalon" to the closing "Where the Wild Wind Blows" is easily their strongest collection of songs since their mid-80's heyday. It doesn't have to be as fast, but play it loud.


38. Ali Farka Toure & Toumani, Ali & Toumani
Months before his death from bone cancer in 2006, West African guitar legend Ali Farka Toure and his friend, Malian kora player Toumani Diabete convened in London with Cuban bass player Orlando "Chachaito" Lopez and cut this largely improvised collection of easy-going, laid-back guitar tracks and old folk songs. There is a dazzling interplay of rhythms and fluid melodies throughout: it is subtle, intricate and warm, and you don't need a full understanding of African culture to appreciate it. This was Toure's final recording session, and you can feel the passion and celebration in the music, the international language of joy.

Sabu Yerkoy

37. These New Puritans, Hidden
Mostly abandoning their post-punk influences for an altogether stranger brew, the English angular rockers made an album that might be ancient Aztecs pounding out rhythms in outer space, while bassoons, children's choirs and wild horn arrangements flutter around. Electronic sounds are very prevalent, and the drum programming runs the gamut from hip-hop to drum n' bass and dubstep; in fact, there is very little discernible "rock" to be found on this album, but its willingness to take risks and sound like nobody else make this young band one to watch.

We Want War

36. Ufomammut, Eve
Incredibly heavy hybrid of stoner and doom metal powdered with prog influences, telling a 45-minute suite of the Genesis story and the first woman. The band is of Italian heritage, and with lyrics being barely intelligible or heavily distorted, the story is only known through word of mouth. What can be felt though is the heaviness: a stunning collection of spacey ambience, heart-stopping crescendos and immolating riffs. The suite roils and boils over, gently caresses you before throwing you into another hellish level of doom. Not especially easy listening, but one with infinite appeal.


35. Scissor Sisters, Night Work
Honing their musical influences down to a laser-like intensity, the Sisters did it for themselves this year and created their most musically upbeat work to date, a future-disco album that had no filler and was lyrically their most overtly outre yet. Gay culture permeates this album (as if the cover didn't give it away), and all its hedonism and darkness are presented. Tongue-in-cheek songs like the title track and "Running Out" are outlandish, but it is tender moments like "Skin Tight", "Sex and Violence" and "Invisible Light" that elevate the album into something exceptional.

Invisible Light

34. Pantha du Prince, Black Noise
Released in February, Black Noise became the perfect soundtrack for the thawing out of winter: Hendrik Weber has long been one of the "prettiest" producers of microhouse/techno/whatever-evocative-electronic-music is called. 2007's This Bliss was a snowed-in masterpiece, and this new album follows roughly the same template of bells, warm analog synths, dubby basslines and soft drum pads. There are tracks here that could almost lead to dancing ("Lay In a Shimmer", "The Splendour" and "Satellite Sniper" have a subtle and organic tempo), but the emphasis is still on wintry stillness, the cold forest come to life after the world has gone to sleep.

The Splendour

33. Matthew Dear, Black City
After finding his voice (literally) on Asa Breed after years of microhouse and harder-techno production, Matthew Dear is back with another collection of moody, melodic electro. Alternately Dear's most accessible and most oblique album to date, there are few standout tracks like 2007's "Don and Sherri", instead settling into a Berlin-era-Bowie haze as filtered through two decades of 80's synth-pop mastering. The focal point is his low, liquid voice - a weapon with little range, but used effectively in its multitracking to create a warm, oddly addictive center to the music around it. A cursory glance will likely invoke boredom, but repeated listens unveil hidden melodies through the texture.

You Put A Smell On Me

32. ASC, Nothing Is Certain
Drum n' bass appeared to die a rather ignominous death at the turn of the century, consumed by the increasing need to go faster, Faster, FASTER and allow creativity to fall behind. Of course, it hasn't gone away: mainstream acts like Noisia and Pendulum have loyal fanbases of speed freaks. However, there is a contingent of producers and labels keeping the creative side of the genre alive, acts like dBridge, Instra:mental, and the Autonomic collective, including ASC. Much of the greatness of this album is the taking stock of and respectfully rearranging the rich past history of dance music: everything from IDM, jungle, techno and hip-hop is amalgamated into an elegant and understated whole. ASC makes sure that nothing is certain; the tempos aren't as fast as drum n' bass, the ambiance is not as languid as ambient, and the entire thing is too momentous and stately to be mere "techno". Sophisticated and alluring.

Fade Away Seasons

31. Darkstar, North
Taking a bold left turn from their previous low-end vibrancy for moody electro-pop, Darkstar scrapped an entire album's worth of material in the vein of their earlier work, added singer James Buttery, and released this reflective, bedroom-pop confessional completely at odds with even Hyperdub's frantic genre-hopping. Instead of giving in to glaring synths or huge bass, the songs are allowed to breathe and have simple moments shine - one of the myriads examples of the relentless tearing apart of what "dubstep" meant in 2010. The stateliness of the album is further enhanced by the inclusion of their previous single "Aidy's Girl Is A Computer", whose glitchy vocal samples at first sound jarringly out of place, but go a long way to make the rest of the downbeat melancholy sound increasingly rich.


30. Gonjasufi, A Sufi and a Killer
What is most exciting about Gonjasufi's debut album is its unpredictability. Whatever you expect to follow any given track is never what actually comes: dusty soul, ethnic hip-hop, mad Indian samples, a world-weary broken croak, unhinged psychedelia, Bad Brains-style hardcore, all mixed to sound as scuzzy as if it were a forty-year old slab of vinyl repeatedly scratched. Produced in part by Gaslamp Killer and Flying Lotus, released on Warp Records, appealing to fans of deranged hip-hop, it shapeshifts and time travels to the point of exhaustion, doesn't have a whole lot original to say lyrically, but is never less than fascinating.


29. Diddy-Dirty Money, Last Train to Paris
Shame that in a year where Kanye single-handedly hypes his album to be the Second Coming that bling-rap's original megalomaniac, the man with at least three different documented aliases, would return with his best work since Biggie Smalls and get lost in the year-end shuffle. After the pop-centric streamlining of 2006's Press Play, Sean Combs dove headfirst into the Euro-pop phenomenon of recent years and emerged with a concept album of chasing a girl across Europe on trains, bringing two female singers and a caboose full of guest stars to do the heavy lifting. This is melancholy pop that aims to heal your heartache while keeping you in full motion on the dance floor.

Yeah Yeah You Would

28. Motorpsycho, Heavy Metal Fruit
These Norwegians have been around for over 20 years, and this is their 14th album. I've never heard of them, but positive reviews have encouraged me to check it out, and I was floored by the expertise on hand: labyrinthine song structures, an elaborate prog/psych sprawl, a near-perfect mix of metal, space rock, jazz and prog in beautiful harmony - "Starhammer" contains some killer riffs, but it wanders off into a spacey jam, as does "X-3 (Knuckleheads In Space)". "Close Your Eyes" is a palette-cleansing piano ballad, then the band blasts off again, culminating in the glorious 20-minute, four part suite "Gullible's Travails". To call this heavy metal would be a complete misnomer: this is Led Floyd, a glorious trip that will delight and entertain.


27. Shackleton, Fabric 55
Following in the footsteps of Ricardo Villalobos' Fabric 36 and Omar S's Fabric 45, funereal dubstep producer Shackleton tries to recreate one of his own sets with the all-original entry into Fabric's long-running series. Old standards stand alongside previously unreleased tracks and coalesce in a creeping-death march of percussion and yearning voices. Leaving the dubstep cherry-picking to Kode9, Shackleton has made a mix so good that we can only hope to one day experience the actual live set.

Fabric 55 (Complete)

26. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
A doubter-be-damned type of genre-annihilating concept album you would expect from the most wayward of bloated stars with nothing to gain, or from a young fresh face with nothing to lose. Janelle Monae spins a spellbinding tapestry of sound in telling the story of Cindy Mayweather, an android from the future who is the reincarnation of Monae, or something or other - the story is secondary to the relentless rush of genres that Monae masters. My one bone to pick is that while she adeptly crafts a sort of melting-pot greatest hits of the past fifty years of pop, rock and R&B, it doesn't push the envelope as much as proclaimed, and on "Make The Bus", it completely derails. We can only hope this is the first step in a truly great career rather than a flash in the pan.

Mushrooms & Roses

25. Kvelertak, Kvelertak
Cherry-picking the best elements of black metal, Southern riffing, hard rock, stoner metal and psychedelic sludge, and shooting them through a filter of their hardcore punk roots, the young Finns of Kvelertak make a stylish debut, complete with Baizley cover art. Progressive punk; Nordic warriors playing Southern rock; eclectic without being schizo - and all done with the hoarse punk scream in Norwegian. Don't worry about the language barrier: "Blodtorst", "Nekroskop" and "Sultans of Satan" give you an idea of what's happening in the mix. A truly exciting debut, and a rarity in metal these days: a complete blast of fun.


24. New Young Pony Club, The Optimist
Post-rock from 1978 to 1982 was an endless gift to the past decade of music: the original movement was so multi-faceted that endless new bands could claim influence by a couple of those old artists and create memorable music of their own. On their sticky debut Fantastic Playroom, these British rockers were primarily about the spastic stylings of Gang of Four and ESG. On the follow-up, following turmoil that saw the majority of the band depart, singer Tahita Bulmer turns the lights off and moves into dark new wave territory akin to Altered Images. As hook-heavy as their debut was, and the length of time between releases, it is reassuring to note that the song quality is as strong as ever: tracks like "Lost A Girl", "We Want To", "Dolls" and "Rapture" will stick in your head for days.


23. Bilal, Airtight's Revenge
Nearly a decade removed from the scene, the assured boldness of Airtight's Revenge makes you realize exactly why he has struggled with unsympathetic major labels and shelved music. On this album of messy, heavy emotions, he unleashes a torrent of gnarled tension through a prism of full-band arrangments which showcase impeccable craft. There are moments of romantic failures, excoriations of society in keeping ordinary people from reaching happiness, and self-doubt, but also heartfelt love songs for his sons and proclaimations of his basic human nature. Bilal sings with all his conviction and commitment, and the album overall is warm and accessible enough to keep it from becoming self-indulgent. A triumph of unflinching vision.


22. Onra, Long Distance
You can always leave it to the French to throw some weirdness into music: from the French horn to Serge Gainsbourg to Daft Punk, French music will always be just that much different from the norm. As is the case with this enigmatic Parisian producer, who takes the dubstep/instrumental hip-hop genre and turns it into his digital neo-disco playground - clubstep, perhaps? Another in the long line of post-Dilla tributes, Onra keeps his wild mesh of styles together with an over-arching hip-hop theme; there are several guest vocalists and rappers rhapsodising about devotion, lost love and partying over the slick beats, and if it occasionally sounds tacky, remember the tongue firmly in cheek. The album stays true to its title with a considerable running time, but Onra's charm and studio wizardry keep the proceedings lively.

My Mind Is Gone

21. Robyn, Body Talk
Although her steady list of late-night appearances would indicate otherwise, Robyn does not care about being a huge pop star in North America. What other explanation for her mega-sized 2010, when she announced that she would release three new albums, and stayed true to her word? Granted, the three albums were more along the lines of EP's, and the "compilation's" tracklisting was maddeningly selected and uneven. But in essence, five years after her resurrection as a legitimate pop force, she released a double-album's worth of often-great pop that again stays ahead of its paler imitators, and again falls to generally deaf ears. Maybe she needs to fire her agent.

Dancing On My Own

20. Guido, Anidea
Much ink is spilled over the dark, brooding qualities of most artists labelled dubstep. Bristol's Guido is lumped into the scene thanks to his label association, but it is evident that his anticipated debut album is a brighter, more sensitive form of dubstep. Rarely would you mistake this for a Burial album. There are gorgeous melodies scattered throughout (R&B hybrids, complete with vocals, like "Beautiful Complication" and "Way U Make Me Feel" could be big hits), unorthodox elements surprise (the dizzying flurries of "Mad Sax"), and the tempo runs from the ruminative (piano-driven "Take Me Higher") to upbeat ("Tango") - making for a fresh and satisfying collection of electronic beauty.

Cat In The Window

19. How to Dress Well, Love Remains
Would that words be enough to describe the indescribable. Is this album psychedelic soul? Burial covering Suicide's "Cheree"? Should it be classified as rock, or electronic, or witch house, or hypnagogic, or post-nuclear bubblegum pop? Despite the intimidating facade, this is a pop album at heart, albeit fragile and ready to collapse, like a disintegrating cassette. Crackles, hisses and pops, vocals that distort if they rise above a whisper, heartbreak and sorrow - could they sing in something other than falsetto? Probably. Does it reach a point of exhaustion over its 14 tracks? Very nearly. Is it addictive and interesting? Without a doubt.

Lover's Start

18. Roof Light, Kirkwood Gaps
Not to belittle South London producer Gareth Munday, but when I heard Roof Light's elegant "Kite Tails & Redwings", I nearly fell over in ecstacy that Boards of Canada was finally back. A bit of a shocker, but I knew I had to hear the rest of the album, and was suitably blown away. That track is a bit of a red herring on a nine-track disc that covers a wide array of styles, from garage and dubstep to ambient and house. He spends the first four tracks creating a hazy, laid-back vibe with lush soundscapes before bringing the rhythm to the forefront on more unsettling and uptempo tracks like "Hold It Back" and "Losing My Mind" before winding down with "Taro"'s haunting vocal textures. A wonderful trip of an album.


17. Kode9, DJ Kicks
The fabled K7! series got a welcome shot in the arm this year with four doses of inimitable DJ kicking: the disco-dub of Juan Maclean, the leftfield electronics of James Holden and Apparat, and this beast of a dubstep mix by Hyperdub head honcho Kode9. I personally hold the Holden mix in the highest regard in that it seeks to create an Album rather than a mix, but Kode9's is huge in its peerless mixing and careful selection: 30 tracks from the past decade of dance music, and its mutated offsprings of dubstep, electro-bleeps and found sound. The tracks are dizzying, the thrills are abundant, the pace is careering (with a nicely placed set of chill-out tracks in the middle to create a breather), and an incredible amount of ground is covered in its 63 minutes. A strong candidate for future music fans to dip their toes into when exploring the dubstep phenomenon.

You Don't Wash (Dub)

16. Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
Damon Albarn has long ago become the final relevant bastion of Britpop, and Gorillaz had reached great heights with the wonderful Demon Days - it was high time for both entities to create their masterpiece. Plumbing the lowest depths of post-millennial ennui and freed from the constraints of a cartoon concept, Albarn and a killer list of collaborators (a revitalized Snoop Dogg, Mark E. Smith, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, et al.) wring pop magic from despair: it is a broadcast from the same dystopian future that Demon Days visited, and although it lacks the immediate hooks of that previous album, its focus on texture ensures that multiple listens reveal track after track of unimpeachable pop.

Some Kind Of Nature

15. James Blake, The Bells Sketch / CMYK / Klavierwerke EPs
James Blake's three EPs this year offered people the thrill of discovery: seeing a long-familiar landscape in a new light; reading a single paragraph from "War and Peace"; trying foie gras for the first time. He classifies himself as dubstep, and each EP could be lazily regarded as such, but the three short works are as different from each other as apples and oranges - in fact, the sudden shifts in sound throughout are almost more thrilling than the music itself. CMYK is the closest to straight-up dubstep, with its heavy synths and vocal snatches from the insane ward; The Bells Sketch is slower, noisier and unstable, and Klavierwerke gets dropped into zero gravity, left to float with Blake's pianos and warped voice. All three could have been fantastic albums; that they all came out in one year made for an exciting bird's-eye-view of restless creativity, and makes his debut album one of the most anticipated of 2011.

I Only Know (What I Know Now)

14. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
What keeps Hot Chip's tamed sincerity and pleas-for-love on the right track is its genuine heart. Much less spastic and rambunctious than previous efforts, their ode to love and married life was still a deadly funky affair: the foot-numbing groove of "Thieves in the Night" is heightened by its yearning for happiness, the title track's call for monogamy is done in the most melodic manner, and "We Have Love" has a relentless beat that rivals anything off The Warning. Meanwhile, affecting ballads like "Slush" and especially the minimalist "Keep Quiet" show what a tight balancing act Hot Chip pull on this album, one that should finally enhance their status as a legitimate force.

We Have Love

13. Scuba, Triangulation
Much has been written this year about dubstep being in its death throes this year much the same as drum n' bass was about ten years ago. While I am hardly the expert on the subject, it does seem like most dubstep artists are learning from the mistakes of electronic artists of past: the sophomore albums. From Burial to Starkey to 2562, the second albums generally eclipse the debuts in quality, and this was especially true of Scuba. Simply put, this is the most dubstep-sounding of albums in that genre released this year: reverb-soaked grey ambiance, clattering beats, the Bass - this album sounds massive and intimate at the same time. However I try to describe it, all I know is that it needs to start again as soon as it ends.


12. Ikonika, Contact, Love, Want, Have
Burial. Memories of the Future. Untrue. Waiting For You. The roster of Hyperdub's full-length releases, and the rarefied company into which Sara Abdel-Hamid thrusts herself with aplomb on her debut for electronic music's foremost label. Stylized as a sort of dystopian arcade video game, complete with "insert coin" and "final boss stage" bookends, Ikonika takes you deep into the heart of the machine: her post-dubstep sound of punishing drums, crisp percussion hits and ever-zooming synths are the cutting edge of the genre's bloop-bleep scene. Despite the strength of her earlier singles, what really impresses is the structure of the album: there is a keen sense of compositional sophistication, the way tracks are built to compliment each other (notably the one-two of "Yoshimitsu" and "Fish", and the entire run-up to the concluding quartet of massive dance floor bombers). Hyperdub remains a stringent LP distributor, and Ikonika's is another classic.


11. Teebs, Ardour
Released on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label, L.A. producer Teebs stews up a perfect stepping stone to those intimidated by FlyLo's otherworldly exploits but who desperately need a fix of sparkly instrumental hip-hop/experimental goodness. Everything you love about the beats, clinks, chimes and jingles are transmogrified and brightened into a digestible whole, and what comes out is one of the year's most beautiful records on headphones. Teebs keeps the 18 tracks short and constantly on the move: it gives tracks a sense of urgency, and ensures that as you get lost in "While You Doooo" "Lakeshore Avenue" and the like, they are over much too soon, and you have to restart the gorgeousness all over again.

You've Changed

10. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Pity the fools at Jive, with their legal limboing keeping this album under wraps for three years, trying to tell one-half of fucking Outkast what to do! People were so taken by Andre 3000's bloated album in 2003 that they forgot the trunk rattling hip-hop of Big Boi's effort. Seven years later, we are still waiting for Andre's next move, while Left Foot continues his hot streak of effortless futuristic funk and retro-electro swashbucklery on the year's best hip-hop album, where an impressive roster of producers adhere to Big Boi's vision and weave a seamless melange of beats and bass. In the way that Speakerboxxx better withstood the test of time, we are going to be booming Left Foot for years to come.

General Patton

9. Mount Kimbie, Crooks & Lovers
Some albums are best left alone, to be endlessly listened to without attempting to explain their certain charm, their mysterious allure, exactly why you need to immerse yourself in its grooves repeatedly. Mount Kimbie had already released two EPs before their debut dropped, and their sound was already identifiable as their own: Maybes featured dusty ambience, while Sketches On Glass focused more on the grooves. In a way, Crooks is a hybrid of those two shorter works, while staying short on its own. At only 34 minutes long, they do not waste a single second in their beautifully fragmented world: songs float by like insular music boxes, and although there is nothing that reaches out and grabs your throat, it is amazingly sequenced, accessible and rewards repeated listens.

Would Know

8. Vampire Weekend, Contra
Their debut album was so singular and distinct in its influences that it was easy to join the backlash against Vampire Weekend, and initially I had dismissed Contra as more of the same: smart-ass lyrics and oh-so-prescient Graceland influences. Of course, some of the best albums have a way of burrowing their way into your mind and staying through the year, and after a while I had to concede that this album was the real deal, the moment when a promising young band blossoms into a force to be reckoned with, instantly recognizable and endlessly melodic. Although songs like "Giving Up The Gun" and "Run" were constantly playing through the year for me, any of the other tracks could have been singles as well, adding up to one of the year's most consistent and enjoyable albums.

Giving Up The Gun

7. Caribou, Swim
Dan Snaith has a Ph.D in mathematics; perhaps the explanation for his less-than-linear musical progression? After trying his hand at everything from pastoral IDM to 60's style British rock, he maintains his sonic experimentation and made an album "inspired by water". Whatever the process for that was, the end result was a stripping away of layers for an album that would work just as well on the dance floor as on headphones in the bedroom; Andorra's songcraft remixed for the clubs. Of course this is still a Caribou record: it is much too cerebral, too tactile and immersive to dance to - in a brighter world, pop nuggets like "Odessa" and "Leave Home" might be huge hits. However, it is the quieter songs that reveal themselves as true gems with repeat listens: tracks like "Bowls" and "Kaili" gleam with shiny surfaces and true substance beneath.


6. The National, High Violet
By now, the National have patented the kind of arch melancholy and stately elegance that most bands, Elbow excepting, could only hope to master with such ease. After strong word of mouth for Alligator and critical rapture for Boxer, the Brooklyn band hit the sweet spot with this album that honestly could not fail even if they added hot synths and drum machines. After months of radio play, sold out concerts, considerable face time in print magazine, and countless bytes online, the National have become the indie rock band du jour - and after years of waiting for their inevitable breakthrough, I am quite pleased and happy for them. The album? Oh, the album is suitably amazing, as expected: richly orchestrated, intricate and utterly singular.


5. LoneLady, Nerve Up
Reinvigorating the seemingly moribund and bludgeoned genre of post-punk revival, after a decade of increasingly insipid efforts by endlessly interchangable bands ("landfill indie" as NME called it), Julie Campbell unleashed an album that was raved about as a worthy peer to PiL and Gang of Four rather than a debut mimicry. The initially limited palette of post-punk (slashing guitars, oblique lyrics) ensure that Lonelady cannot escape the "angular" tag, but it is the very starkness of the songs that elevate this effort to greatness. With little more than her guitar, voice and drum machine, Campbell drops one tightly-wound inescapable earworm after another (there are easily seven or eight singles in here), culminating in "Fear No More"'s haunting emptiness, dead air and a "furious winter." It will be interesting to see where she goes after creating such an outstanding album based on the sounds of others.

If Not Now

4. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Unfairly burdened by the albatross that was Sound of Silver, James Murphy announced that the forthcoming third album from his barn-burning band would be their last, not wishing to start a slide into mediocrity that has plagued many better bands. Let us give thanks that said last album is this one. Thank you James for your audacity, beginning such a heavily anticipated album with three minutes of low-key mumbling and burbling, then kicking our faces in with a colossal beat that allowed us to dance ourselves clean. Thank you for making an album that demanded repeated listens, and amply rewarded said listens. Thank you for the sardonic wit of "You Wanted a Hit", the melodic genius of "I Can Change", the funereal march of "Somebody's Calling Me" and the barefaced emotions of "All I Want". Thank you for an entire decade of zeitgest-capturing music, and mostly, thank you for going out on top. If that is actually happening.

I Can Change

3. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma
Steven Ellison had big expectations to meet after his incredible sophomore album Los Angeles - and after charting a mere Californian suburb, he decided to make a "map of the universe". Turns out, FlyLo could go beyond anything anyone thought possible. Making a strong case for unbridled mess, Cosmogramma begins beyond the stars and carries on its way, throwing conventions out of the window as it goes: the instrumental Dilla-esque hip-hop is still identifiable, but Ellison prefers to use it as a blueprint for his free-jazz, post-electronic liquidity. What counts is Continuity: this is less a collection of tracks than a single, endlessly morphing suite that reminds you of his Coltrane roots. What stands out is Collaboration: more live instruments than ever, including manic bass from Thundercat, blaxploitation orchestration from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, vocals from Laura Darlington and Thom Yorke (speaking of, can Yorke and Ellison please make a full-length together?), harp, guitars and horns. What it is is Cutting-edge. Future music will go as far as Ellison decides to take it.


2. Four Tet, There Is Love In You
Sometimes, making a genuinely pleasant album can be quite enough. Kieran Hebden has pushed the envelope plenty of times in the past, from his own horridly mis-labeled "folktronica", to his collaborations with Steve Reid - it was time for a straight-forward dance album. But being Four Tet, this is anything from a simple dance record. A great artist will shine in whatever medium they choose to operate, and Love is the most relaxed Hedben has sounded in years, imbuing his tracks with a natural warmth as they wash over you. "Angel Echoes" carries the jazzy drums he'd explored with Reid; "Love Cry" swirls with textural vocal samples; "Sing" is just so darn pretty you never want it to end; "This Unfolds" does so over eight minutes, adding layers of melodies; and "She Just Likes to Fight" provides the perfect comedown. He doesn't push the envelope here, but he provides a comfort blanket of sound that I doubt will ever grow old.


1. Actress, Splazsh
So yes, this year was very electronic-oriented. The increasing lack of meaningful guitar rock in the past decade has left me to fill the void with the cutting-edge sounds of today, and 2010 did not have a clear stand-out record for me. I am thankful that any one of the albums on my list could have comfortably placed in this slot, but in the end, it became more and more clear that Actress' stunning sophomore album stood just that much taller. It would be easy to place Splazsh in the increasingly irrelevant category of "dubstep", but it is much slipperier than that. It can evoke the same smoke-stack grayness of much of that genre, but it lacks its insistent bass thrum. Identified as "techno", it does not follow the templates of Detroit or Berlin, preferring to offer a twisted British variation of the four-four. The collection of songs could be the work of three or four different producers from three or four different eras: instead, it is one Darren Cunningham, unleashing these wild sonic experiments like an isolated mad professor. What it lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up in incredible highs. Splazsh is the rare electronic album that undeniably sounds like the future, exciting, gritty, and thoroughly modern: my Album of the Year.


Overrated of the Year

The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
This should not be read with too much venom, as The Suburbs is at least a huge improvement on Neon Bible. As of right now, the third album by the Canadian indie rockers is arguably the best-rated album of the year, propelling them into a new realm of popularity, even debuting at #1 in the US. These reasons aren't the sole reason it is here; it simply isn't good enough for the acclaim. Individually, most are very strong songs, among the finest they've written. But there is one thing they seemingly forgot to do after pouring their all into Funeral; the fine art of editing and sequencing. The title track? It is a lovely way to start, with a lump-in-the-throat kinda chorus. "Ready To Start" for track 2? Okay, I thought we have already, but good energy. "Sprawl II"? Can you imagine this written in 2004? No way, so let's bury it at the very end! "Wasted Hours"? Yeah, starting to feel like it. Then I don't remember much of the second half. So what could have been a fantastic, streamlined album with 11 tracks gets bloated up to 16 tracks and over an hour with no flow, no build-up to catharsis (and this is Arcade Fire, can we please expect at least catharsis?), no anything but track after track floating past. It is albums exactly like The Suburbs that make iTunes so popular, but if you are being touted as an albums-band, you should be able to make one that negates using your shuffle and skip buttons.

Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
In the blinding heat of the moment, there is little a mere mortal can do but follow the masses in their bleating herds, led on by a self-advertising pied piper of messianic mindset and gargantuan proportions, a self-made golden calf proclaiming his absolute dominance over not just his artistic field, but the Entire Playing Field itself, training his cabal of monkeys to screech his Glory in printed media and cyber media. Or, hey Kanye has a new album out! And its, like, the best of the new decade. Of the new century, even! This is rap's Sgt. Pepper, its Mount Olympus, Kanye's own Olympics! Where the hooks are so nice, he just had to play them twice. Or was it thrice? This is a record so zealously singular in its madness that it cannot help but be brilliant; like all Great Works, it is by turns frustrating and fascinating, sprawled and meticulous, a perfect storm of hype and grandiosity. Will we still listen to it by February? Nobody can rightly say. Is it the Second Coming? Not at all. It was simply released at the right time, with the right amount of screeching noise, to create an unavoidable tidal wave. It would make my top 100, but it's easier to relegate it into its own category: Kanye would want no less.

Disappointments of the Year

Goldfrapp, Headfirst
My most anticipated album of 2010's first quarter also turned into one of the year's biggest disappointments: Goldfrapp has always been about huge stylistic shifts from album to album, but for the second one in a row, it feels like a rote chore with no enthusiasm. Seventh Tree was a lovely pastoral effort lacking depth, and now Headfirst is a retread into Supernature's electro-disco without that record's subtlety and sly winks. Content to beat you over the head rather than burrow under your skin, glammed up tracks like "Rocket", "I Wanna Life", "Shiny and Warm" and "Believer" are impeccably produced, endlessly catchy - and could have been the work of any random pop starlet. I have come to expect much better from Alison Goldfrapp, and I am still sure she can deliver.

Spoon, Transference
Spoon was one of the most consistent, highly acclaimed indie rock bands of the Aughties, with a stunning run of four modern classics. Why they decided to abandon the mantle in the first year of the new decade escapes me. Sounding less like an album than a half-baked demo lazily abandoned and released as-is, their less-is-more ethos are in sore need of an upgrade on Transference ("the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person's childhood," or why we wanted Spoon to make another great album). Dumped in the middle of January with little fanfare, it seemed as though all parties knew it was a lost cause.

Songs of the Year

Cee-Lo Green, Fuck You

Janelle Monae, Tightrope

Roof Light, Kite Tails & Redwings

James Blake, CMYK

Big Boi, Shutterbug

Girl Unit, Wut

Caribou, Odessa

The Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

LCD Soundsystem, Dance Yrself Clean

Crystal Castles, Celestica

Wild Nothing, Live In Dreams

Lady Gaga ft. Beyonce, Telephone

Joker, Tron VIP

Flying Lotus ft. Thom Yorke, And The World Laughs With You

Sleigh Bells, Rill Rill

Four Tet, Love Cry (Joy Orbison Remix)

Zola Jesus, Night

Rick Ross, B.M.F. (Blowing Money Fast)

Kanye West, POWER

Actress, Lost

Worst Of the Year

The Mainstream
Far be it from me to disdain the "mainstream" after the year it has had: I try not to follow it, but with the prevalence of songs played endlessly on the radio, on YouTube, and on TV, there is no escaping the rubble that is the mainstream. It would be too hard to pick on individuals when the entire thing is so corrupted and damaged by the proverbial "tidal wave of crap", but we can only start at the top. This year, as in 2008, Katy Perry ruled the roost with her insipid batch of half-baked bubblegum dung that went platinum and sent songs to #1 on the charts. She is not in any particular way special amongst the masses, but what sent her over the top could hardly be her own fault: a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. That in this year, with the list of great albums you just slogged through, Teenage Dream is somehow one of the five best albums belittles the imagination. That a mass of over a thousand music industry cogs could put their brains together and the best they could spit out was Teenage Dream boggles the mind. It just cannot sink in. Granted, the Grammys are the absolute worst barometer for what is quality in music, but seriously, Teenage Dream? For Album of the Year? Unfathomable.
But while we're taking potshots, let's call out the too-real-to-be-faking-it vacuous stupidity of Ke$ha; the watered-down saccharinity of Bruno Mars; the irritating ubiquity of Justin Bieber; the unholy trinity of faux hip-hoppers B.o.B, Travie McCoy and Taio Cruz; Train's second chance at life through "Hey Soul Sister"; and the continued trotting out of Susan Boyle's treacle for the holidays. Keep your chin up, true music fans!

Glorified Karaoke
We can follow this up with the whole Glee phenomenon. I am fairly convinced that "glee" is simply a portmanteau for "glorified" and "karaoke". This painfully politically correct TV show about a high school choir and its competitions has gone from minor annoyance into a fully blown plague of locusts in less than 18 months. How a new show on TV could so thoroughly sweep both its own medium and music in general is easy: play it dumb, and play it widespread. Spread it so wide that it becomes inescapable. A quick scan of the show's musical discography, again, beggars belief. Since the show first aired on May 19, 2009, the musical output has included five (5) soundtrack albums, three (3) compilation albums, three (3) extended plays, and one hundred thirty nine (139!!!!!) singles. This is a cottage industry of its own, as all six of the long-playing albums have gone to the top ten, and fully 104 of the singles have charted on the Billboard 100. Elvis Presley, who had a three-decade career, placed 108. Glee will match this record in less than two years of existence. Are all these singles original compositions? Not at all; these are lazy rehashes of past hits and modern pop songs less than a year old. Want to ensure that Journey's absolutely abysmal "Don't Stop Believing" is kept a radio/drunk karaoke staple for the rest of Time Eternal? Have a Glee version reach number 2. What more could you want in the year when Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" hit number 1 and was the most downloaded track? A male rendition of the same song from Glee making it to number 8. "Bridge Over Troubled Water". "Stop! In The Name of Love". "Bad Romance". "Loser". "Safety Dance". "The Boy Is Mine". "Ice Ice Baby". "You Can't Always Get What You Want". Nothing is sacred, nothing is safe from the toxic reach of Glee.

M.I.A., /\/\/\Y/\
Third-album woes have hit the mightiest of artists in the past decade. The Streets. Interpol. Franz Ferdinand. Junior Boys. Extremely promising debut albums, sophomore albums that either improved the formula or were slightly-less-adventurous-but-still-good, shit third albums. Sadly, inexplicably, but quite vigorously, you can add M.I.A to the list. Maybe it was the sudden celebrity for a militant-minded third worlder, but Maya A. lost the thread of bearable experimentation in her music and went overboard avant garde, from the garish mess of a cover to the oh-so-clever skullduggery of the title to the tuneless screeching and empty posturing of the lyrics. It might receive a belated appreciation in the future, or it might just be dismissed as the boring shit it is.

Daft Punk, Tron: Legacy
As Pitchfork put it most succinctly, this is not the new Daft Punk album; it's the soundtrack to a Disney franchise film that cost $200M to make. And when you really think about it, what has Daft Punk done since Discovery to continue justifying everyone's lofty expectations for their new work? The stilted yawns of Human After All? The live shows which offered no new tricks, just blinding lights and a greatest-hits tracklisting? The French duo have been running off Discovery's fumes for nearly a decade now, and whatever creative spark they could have brought to such a fortuitous venture as the soundtrack to a futuristic robotic movie is neutered by an 85-piece orchestra and the necessity of meeting bottom dollar. The movie was terrible too, but it made for a passable music video.

That's it for a great year in music. See you all in 2011, keep the goodness coming!

Email: leftsun7@hotmail.com