Well, hello again. My ever-declining blog output has slowed to a trickle over the past year, thanks in part to the demands of new fatherhood and a PhD program. But now it’s Top 10 time again, and there is work to be done. So rather than spending the first week of the new year obsessing over the latest simulated crisis coming out of Washington, I’ve produced the following for your reading pleasure. Or something resembling pleasure. This year’s production stars a rock legend, an übertalented R&B sensation, and in the lead role, a girl after my own heart. Enjoy.
1. Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
My favorite Neil Young album is Tonight’s the Night. But if someone who’d never listened to Young asked me for a recommendation, I’d advise starting with something else: After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, even a comp like Decade. Great as it is, Tonight’s the Night is not a suitable entry point—too dark, too weird, too forbidding for most neophytes. I feel the same way about Fiona Apple’s fourth album, surely her best to date, but just as surely her strangest and least accessible. Following two albums located within hailing distance of the pop mainstream, Tidal (1996) and When the Pawn… (1999), Apple’s Extraordinary Machine (2005) was an interesting change of direction, more Broadway than Alternative Nation, suggesting that Fiona (I feel like we’re on a first-name basis at this point in our relationship) might be ready to write the Great American Atonal Musical. The Idler Wheel… (improbably not her longest album title ever, by the way) isn’t that, exactly, but does mix traditional pop idioms with decidedly contemporary lyrical content. The key thing is that it is pop, something that becomes clear around the 20th listen or so.
And about those lyrics. Fiona’s never been known as an ace wordsmith, but the new album eliminates the contorted phrasings and strained rhymes that occasionally marred her earlier work. “I stand no chance of growing up,” she sighs in “Valentine,” but clearly she has in her own way. Extraordinary Machine revealed a maturity absent from her ’90s albums, moving beyond petulance and blame toward a new self-awareness and sense of responsibility for her own problems; in short, it was the work of an adult not an adolescent. The Idler Wheel… moves even further toward spiritual maturity and even a sense of self-acceptance. Which is not to say emotional stability. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” Fiona sings, and she’s brave enough to give us a ringside seat. The result is the year’s boldest, most original, and best album. But if you’ve never listened to Fiona, start with When the Pawn…. (“Jonathan” “Hot Knife”)
2. Frank Ocean—Channel Orange
Following last year’s promising mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, the official debut album from the prodigiously gifted 24-year-old Ocean (né Christopher Breaux) demonstrates an astonishing depth and range. Channel Orange encompasses psychedelic funk (“Pyramids”), swelling balladry (“Bad Religion”), and politically tinged soul à la Stevie (“Sweet Life”)—and those are just the highlights. Few albums of recent years have been so weighted down with expectations, from supposed clues about the artist’s autobiography (easy enough to find) to the alleged revitalization of an entire genre (we’ll see), but Channel Orange is more than good enough to bear such burdens with ease. (“Pyramids” “Sweet Life”)
3. Bruce Springsteen—Wrecking Ball
The Boss’s best album in 25 years surveys the fractured landscape of America in the early 2010s and finds some seriously pissed off people—immigrants, activists, and of course the unemployed—as well as glimmers of hope. Channeling folk and gospel influences in a way never before seen in his songwriting, Springsteen once again finds the pulse of the working-class America he’s been singing about for 40 years. (See “The Patriot,” posted April 15.) (“Wrecking Ball” “We Take Care of Our Own”)
4. Beach House—Bloom
Another triumph from the Baltimore duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, Bloom improves ever so slightly on 2010’s also excellent Teen Dream with a more unified sound and a keener ear for the subtleties of longform pacing. (“Myth” “New Year”)
5. Tame Impala—Lonerism
I was a big fan of Tame Impala’s 2010 debut Innerspeaker, and their sophomore effort is an improvement in every way. Between the copious borrowings from late ’60s/early ’70s psych-rock and bandleader Kevin Parker’s Lennonesque vocals, this Australian band would seem in danger of being wrongly classified as a retro act. But make no mistake, this is thoroughly modern music, every bit as concerned with texture and flow as a record by, say, Flying Lotus. (“Keep on Lying” “Elephant”)
Back in 2008, I disallowed Four Tet’s four-song EP Ringer from Top 10 consideration on the grounds that it didn’t count as a full album despite a running time over 30 minutes, a decision that contributed to my including a couple albums on my list that I’ve hardly listened to since. That was a mistake. (“Ashtray Wasp” “Kindred”)
7. Flying Lotus—Until the Quiet Comes
FlyLo’s previous album Cosmogramma (2010) is one of my favorites of the past several years, but many fans seemed to find it too dense and difficult. (Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw a record more criticized essentially for being too good.) As its title suggests, Until the Quiet Comes is quieter and more chilled out than that masterpiece, but it’s still adventurous enough to keep him at the leading edge of sonic innovation. As with the Burial EP and No. 10 below, we’ll be seeing its singular sounds percolating into the mainstream in the coming years. (“Getting There” “Pretty Boy Strut”)
8. Killer Mike—R.A.P. Music
The best hip-hop album of the year punches you in the nose with the opening “Big Beast,” then sneaks up on your woozy ass with its impressive variety, both musical and vocal. R.A.P. Music (that’s Rebellious African People) supplements Mike’s literate tough-guy persona with guest shots from the likes of T.I. (reliably better on other people’s records than on his own) and ace production from El-P (ditto). As for the album’s signature song about a certain dead president, my heart and my best intentions tell me it’s unduly harsh. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. (“Reagan” “Big Beast”)
9. Bob Mould—Silver Age
Let’s face it: even in his youth, Bob Mould was always well suited for the role of crotchety old man, and the cleverly titled Silver Age finds the now 52-year-old postpunk legend well on his way to claiming that mantle. And he’s not ready for fossilization yet. “Stupid little kid wanna hate my game/I don’t need a spot in your hall of fame,” he snarls on the title track. This year marked the 20th anniversary of Sugar’s Copper Blue, arguably Mould’s best work, and this tight 10-song collection largely reprises the sound of that milestone. Mould’s solo career has been filled with experiments, yielding mixed results, but there’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. (“The Descent” “Silver Age”)
The third album from British producer Darren Cunningham falls somewhere under the rubric of “ambient techno.” At times reminiscent of the work of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, R.I.P. is laid-back enough to work as background music but sonically precise enough to reward close listening. (“Jardin” “Tree of Knowledge”)
Five runners-up (in alphabetical order)
By my count, this is the master’s 35th studio album, and it may well be his weirdest. As with Wrecking Ball, the reception of Tempest was hurt by the shameless ageism of rock critics (although helped by the reverse ageism of Rolling Stone). (“Long and Wasted Years” “Tin Angel”)
This Swedish band arrives complete with some elaborate backstory involving, naturally enough, voodoo rituals that I’m pretty sure is total b.s. But their album is good: hard, funky rock leavened with just the right amount of ’70s cheese (metal, disco) as well as…um, world music. (“Let It Bleed” “Disco Fever”)
Kendrick Lamar—Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City
It’s a bit overlong and the pacing drags toward the middle, but the year’s most celebrated hip-hop album largely deserves its massive critical acclaim. (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” “Swimming Pools (Drank)”)
Andy Stott—Luxury Problems
More British ambient techno, simultaneously cavernous and intimate. (“Luxury Problems” “Hatch the Plan”)
After hearing the self-titled first album by this young British trio back in 2009, I briefly had faith in the future of humanity, which I’m sure must have lasted at least until the next time I logged on to Facebook or turned on my TV. The follow-up doesn’t have quite as many standout songs but continues co-lead-vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims’s quiet explorations of the pleasures and perils of intimacy, with appropriately insular production from Jamie xx. (“Chained” “Fiction”)
Top 5 songs not on those albums
1. Taylor Swift—“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
Country-pop star reaches for the mainstream, sends up fan base, expresses insecurity about perceived lack of coolness.
2. Cloud Nothings—“Wasted Days”
3. Japandroids—“The House That Heaven Built”
4. Four Tet—“Jupiters”
The tracks collected on Kieran Hebden’s self-released compilation Pink suggest a turn toward a more dancefloor-oriented sensibility, with the two-minute ambient synth intro here providing perhaps the most explicit connection to his previous work. As always, I can’t wait to hear what he does next.
5. Kanye West (feat. Jay-Z and Big Sean)—“Clique”
Even his superficial raps is super official.