I didn’t have the time to see a ton of movies this year, so I didn’t vote in any end-of-year film polls and probably won’t be posting a Top 10 list until at least March. However, my music list is ready a bit earlier than usual. For the first time in a while, I don't need to spend January scrounging for albums to fill out the bottom of my list. By my reckoning, this was the best year for new music since at least 2005; any of the first six below would have been top-three in an average year.
1. Kanye West—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The word narcissist gets thrown around a lot these days, yet it remains a rare privilege to watch a true narcissist at work. Kanye gets his defensiveness about the tabloid stuff out of the way on a pair of early tracks (reminding us of his black balls on “Gorgeous”; declaring his independence on the majestic “Power”), but only to ultimately pull us deeper into his self-obsession. The whole album is strong, but beginning with the thumping tagteam of “Monster” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy begins living up to its title, taking off on the most mind-blowing half-hour in the recent history of pop music. The key track for me is “So Appalled.” Kanye, of course, is not a moralist, but he wants you to know he’s concerned: “Niggas is goin’ through real shit man, they outta work/That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt/That’s why I rather spit somethin’ that gotta purp.” Only trouble is that his verse is already up and he never makes it back to the mic except to repeat a couple lines, presumably spending the rest of the song stumbling around in a haze of champagne and dirty white bitches while his supporting cast spits meaningless bon mots like “If God had an iPod, I’d be on his playlist.” It’s like that sometimes.
Kanye’s point-guard precision as a producer strikes again with his brilliant deployment of the Teflon Don himself, Rick Ross, who keeps the sleazy vibe going on “Devil in a New Dress,” a drifter built on a Smokey Robinson vocal sample. By the time we get to the assorted douchebags, assholes, and jerkoffs of “Runaway” and the pornstar fantasies of “Hell of a Life,” it’s hard to describe the tone exactly. The nearest antecedent to this music’s uneasy relationship with the freewheeling decadence of the lyrics is probably Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, but Kanye hardly sounds like he’s on the verge of burnout. A more apt comparison might be U2’s Achtung Baby, another confessional mid-career work by a classic narcissist hitting his thirties and seeking to escape the trap of earnestness (irony taking the place of fantasy). Like Bono, Kanye reaches for the heavens and crawls in the muck, often at the same time. Sublime or ridiculous, he’s never indifferent.
Also included: Chris Rock’s funniest bit since Bigger and Blacker and what will almost certainly be the last-ever reference to former USC Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart in a hip-hop song. Or any kind of song.
(“So Appalled” “Runaway”)
2. Flying Lotus—Cosmogramm
The spirit of Coltrane—more immediately, Alice, the late great-aunt of Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus) who inspired the album’s title, but also John—hovers over the fractured rhythms, horn samples, skittering bass lines, and dense arrangements of the year’s most innovative electronic album. Drawing from sources as disparate as free jazz, krautrock, IDM, and two-step/grime, Cosmogramm achieves a remarkable fusion of textures. As with Madlib’s best work, it’s all about the flow, with even Thom Yorke blending perfectly into the mix. (“Nose Art” “Arkestry”)
3. Deerhunter—Halcyon Digest
“Hey little boy, I am your friend/And I understand the pain you’re in,” sings Bradford Cox, evoking the siren song of rock music and its appeal to art-damaged adolescent boys (among others), one of the key themes of this remarkably unified album, a not unpredictable yet highly satisfying breakthrough for the Atlanta group. Halcyon Digest continues Cox’s career-long reworking of the music of his own halcyon days, also sprinkling in elements of late-’60s pop. The more delicate tracks, like the stoner-nostalgic “Memory Boy” and the depressive “Sailing,” are well complemented by a pair of rockers from guitarist Lockett Pundt, particularly the extended centerpiece jam, “Desire Lines.” (“He Would Have Laughed” “Revival”)
4. Four Tet—There Is Love in You
The latest album from the indispensable Kieran Hebden may sound like a retreat at first, eschewing the eclectic rhythmic excursions of 2005’s Everything Ecstatic, but it’s really a retrenchment, a deliberate paring down to essentials, a bid for musical and spiritual purity. I wouldn’t call this music minimalist, exactly, but it’s certainly efficient—in the warmest possible sense of the word—mining tremendous depth of feeling from the most basic materials: gentle electronic tones, simple melodies, and looped vocal samples. (“Love Cry” “Circling”)
5. Beach House—Teen Dream
The pop album of the year. This sounds so West Coast to me that it’s hard to believe they’re from Baltimore. Definitely not to be confused with Teenage Dream by Katy Perry, who might be the worst person on earth. Just kidding, of course. Sort of. Not really. (“Norway” “Walk in the Park”)
6. Joanna Newsom—Have One on Me
Clocking in at over 120 minutes, Have One on Me might be both the most musically conventional and artistically radical work to date from Newsom. As befits the woman who once sang about the difference between the sprout and the bean, the subject here is growing up and dealing with—no, embracing—the challenges of adulthood. “Do you think you can just stop when you’re ready for a change?” she asks on “Go Long,” one of many songs apparently centered on a dying relationship, and one of several that suggest the ways in which the choices we make in life eventually come to define us—whether we like it or not. Taken seriously, this album’s a real kick in the teeth to its presumed audience of self-involved hipsters, many of whom no doubt preferred the comforting nostalgia of The Suburbs. I’m impressed with her command of English folk idioms or whatever. But I’m more impressed with her maturity and her quiet self-confidence in putting out an album full of long songs and allusive, oblique lyrics, one that both demands and rewards close attention—in short, an album that's not easy. I’ve never seen Joanna Newsom live, but I bet she could command a room without ever raising her voice. (“In California” “Good Intentions Paving Co.”)
7. Big Boi—Sir Lucious Left Foot…The Son of Chico Dusty
I’ll never be able to look at David Blaine in quite the same way. (“Tangerine” “The Train Pt. 2”)
8. Women—Public Strain
These combative Calgary garage rockers tap some classic indie influences (The Velvet Underground, ’80s Sonic Youth, Slint, etc.) but find an original sound rooted in an ominous bass-heavy drone. Like Halcyon Digest and Have One on Me, this is a carefully constructed album, showing there’s some life in the longform yet. (“Locust Valley” “Narrow With the Hall”)
9. Pantha du Prince—Black Noise
German techno being possibly the chilliest of the major technos, it took me a long time to get into this early-year release, and I kept expecting it to fade away—but it never did. The third album from German DJ/producer Pantha du Prince (né Hendrik Weber) could just as easily have been called Negative Space—it’s all about what’s not there, the infinite silences between the sounds. (“Es Schneit” “Welt am Draht”)
10. Crystal Castles—Crystal Castles [II]
I yield the floor to my E&F colleague David Nelson Pollock.
I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, but it was such a rich year that I’m also going to list five runners-up. I wouldn’t call these #11-15 per se, but at least a couple of them would have made the Top 10 in an average year. These are in alphabetical order; Caribou was the closest to making the final cut.
The latest from the ever unpredictable Dan Snaith is more dancefloor-oriented than anything else in the Manitoba/Caribou catalogue, while retaining some of the psychedelic/shoegazer elements of previous albums like Up in Flames. This one was truly Top 10-worthy. (“Kaili” “Bowls”)
Brian Eno—Small Craft on a Milk Sea
Solid work from one of the all-time greats. The more beat-oriented tracks here make me wish he’d attempt a full-on techno album. (“2 Forms of Anger” “Written, Forgotten”)
Some interesting guest shots on this one, with several gravelly-voiced singers providing a nice counterpoint to Damon Albarn & Co.’s sci-fi settings. (“Some Kind of Nature” “On Melancholy Hill”)
Janelle Monáe—The ArchAndroid
Overlong and more than a little pretentious, but she’s still young enough to grow into her ambitions. The lyrics need work, though. (“Tightrope” “Neon Valley Street”)
These indie-rock masters are so consistent that they risk being taken for granted. This disjointed, uneasy outing tries on various rock styles but lacks a knockout song and never quite rises to the soulful heights of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007). Still, it’s good enough to make five winners in a row for the band. (“The Mystery Zone” “Got Nuffin’”)
Top 5 songs not on those albums
1. M.I.A.—“Born Free”
In retrospect, it feels like a bait-and-switch, but still.
2. James Blake—“CMYK”
3. Arcade Fire—“We Used to Wait”
Sometimes they never came.
4. The Chemical Brothers—“Escape Velocity”
Post-Prince neo-soul (I think that was redundant) from yet another major-label casualty.