This year-end top-10 list presents an enjoyable but frustrating exercise in all things arbitrary. More than most, 2010 was a banner year in terms of the music it produced across all genres.
So much music I heard this year, from both older and brand-new artists, impressed me enough to fit on this year's list. Whether it was the double-fisted psych-metal of Kylesa or the retroactive sci-fi R&B of Janelle Monae, artists delivered a good to great album week after week.
So, at the end of the day, I just went back to what kept finding its way onto my iPod mixes, what played on my PC at the beginning of the day or on my turntable at the end of the night -- the music that ended up living with me.
10. "I'm New Here," Gil Scott-Heron -- Kanye may have dropped a career-defining album this year, but it's one of his forebears that left the biggest impression on me. Gil Scott-Heron spent the '70s as an icon of the pro-black movement, recording classic pieces of jazz-poetry that planted the hip-hop seed that flourished throughout the subsequent decades. Scott-Heron, who has run afoul of the law with drug abuse that has led to incarcerations, dials back politically with this haunting and deeply personal return to form. It's a little scattershot and scant to measure up with his classic body of work, but his weathered voice, cast into a sea of disjointed beats and throbbing effects in his cover of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil," sends a surge up my spine every time I hear it. It's a modern retelling of a man at war for his soul, and Scott-Heron's frayed vocal cords, fused directly to his proud and bruised heart, tell what a hard-fought battle it has been.
9. "Everything in Between," No Age -- L.A. shoegaze/punk duo No Age followed up 2008's excellent "Nouns" with this less raucous and more focused effort. Guitarist Randy Randall is quickly becoming one of modern punk's most interesting players, manipulating oceans of sound around frantic skate-core and washed-out noise-pop. Drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt's songwriting and delivery have evolved to a place where one can actually hear him behind the racket. The results have placed No Age within striking distance of becoming one of rock's top acts.
8. "Grinderman 2," Grinderman -- Nick Cave takes a break from his more refined work with the Bad Seeds to crank out some truly primal and venomous gutter-rock on this second Grinderman outing. Cave and company slither and creep with menace and satanic bravado, proving that middle age doesn't have to mean complacency. Actually, it proves that being an old man in the rock world means you get to make all the young dudes look like a bunch of whimpering Nancy-boys.
7. "Nothing Hurts," Male Bonding -- There has been no shortage of top-notch pop punk this year, returning the maligned genre back to its former glory. Although a reunited Superchunk, fascinating train-wreck Wavves and beach-baked rockers Best Coast all signed-off with great records this year, it's England's Male Bonding that takes the crown. With songs clocking in at under 3 minutes, the hyper-kinetic trio packs loads of melody and muscle into a hook-laden blend of surging power chords and sugary harmonies. Noisy and chaotic, but always holding tight to its classic power-pop center, Male Bonding has been gaining comparisons to a certain trio of hard rockers who busted out of Seattle more than 20 years ago.
6. "High Violet," The National -- The National kicked around as a footnote in the rock revolution early in the last decade, taking a back seat while contemporaries such as Interpol and The Strokes reaped the accolades. That all changed with 2007's masterwork "The Boxer," which put the band in an entirely different airspace creatively, and remains one of that year's highlights. The follow-up, "High Violet," continues that ascension. Often crafting its workmanlike rock-anthems around tales of maladjusted characters who would seem more at home in a Jonathan Franzen or Tom Perrotta novel than a pop song, The National hit both the gut and heart with equal force and precision.
5. "The Suburbs," Arcade Fire -- Another indie-rock act that often feels literary in its sprawling sense of ambition, Arcade Fire put out another self-consciously all-important, life-changing rock record this year. And as smug and pretentious as the band may be, it absolutely pulls it off. "The Suburbs" hits all of those raw nerves and exposes the scar tissue of youth, while touching on the present in a manner that, at its best, feels nothing less than cathartic truth. Damn you, Arcade Fire, damn you to hell for perfectly encapsulating my complex emotional disposition in the form of a 3- to 5-minute rock song
4. "Teen Dream," Beach House -- Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally make up Baltimore's Beach House, and with "Teen Dream," the duo graduated from making low-key and incredibly pretty underground pop to making absolutely awe-inspiring, jaw-droppingly gorgeous dream pop -- sounding a bit like vintage Stevie Nicks meshed with the best of Mazzy Star, and drawing in such high-profile fans as Jay-Z and Beyonce. That comparison, adorned with the celebrity endorsements, hardly does this sort of ethereal beauty justice. Legrand's voice is at once warm and chilling, soft yet earthy, and when put with Scally's spider-like guitar lines, it results in a truly rare thing of beauty.
3. "IRM," Charlotte Gainsbourg -- Freakishly brave actress, daughter of a notoriously randy French lounge singer and iconic actress, and recent survivor of a near-fatal head injury, Charlotte Gainsbourg hooked up with post-modern wunderkind Beck to record the enigmatic and endlessly fascinating and listenable "IRM." With Beck as the proverbial Oz behind the curtain and Gainsbourg giving the musical performance of her career, "IRM" has a shifting cast of moods and textures that incorporates everything from kraut-rock, French-pop, raggedy blues and clap-trap folk to create one of the most consistently engaging and inspired albums since Beck's classic "Odelay." These two work so well together in the studio, that one hopes Beck will end up playing the Lee Hazlewood to Gainsbourg's Nancy Sinatra, and that they'll have more work to come in the future.
2. "Before Today," Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti -- Ariel Pink is a Los Angeles underground luminary, having recorded lo-fi should-be-hits for years on everything shy of proper studio equipment, and often on little more than tin cans and twine. "Before Today" is his first somewhat professional release, and features some rehashing of previous recordings that his hard-core fans have known for years. But in this new context, Ariel Pink's anachronistic mash-ups seem perfectly sequenced and conceived. Whether mining classic analog disco grooves, '70s one-hit-wonder melodies, flamboyant glam rock or scummy downtown punk, Pink and his Graffiti crew keep it all hot wired to his severely skewered point of view. Weird to say the least, but incredibly infectious and prone to repeated listenings to the point of absolute absurdity.
1. "Halcyon Digest," Deerhunter -- Along with his Atlas Sound solo project, Deerhunter's leader Bradford Cox has had an incredibly prolific and remarkably consistent output over the last few years. The kid just seems to rattle off one quality piece of work after another. Then, like he did just recently with his impressively dense Atlas Sound archives, he gives it away for free via his website. "Halcyon Digest" finds Cox scraping away the excess abrasion that obscured some of the intimacy of previous offerings, and the results are devastating. Combining classic '60s pop with hazy guitar rock, Deerhunter strikes its own ground with an album that's so good, it'll likely have you in tears. "Halcyon Digest" aches in that way all the best music can, and words, unfortunately, do it no proper justice.