1. Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Kanye West can carry on as an egomaniac if he delivers albums “as incredible as this one,” said Billboard. In late 2010, after “the dust cleared” from all his Twitter rants and 35-minute music videos, the Chicago rapper delivered a truly “spectacular” record. Instead of pushing buttons, West “pushed musical boundaries” on his fifth album, “effortlessly hopscotching between tribal chants” (“Power”), fuzzed-out soul (“Gorgeous”), and dark pop symphonies (“Runaway”). “Needless to say, West has proved once again that he is most on point in the face of adversity.”
2. Arcade Fire
“Dissecting North America’s love/hate relationship with suburbia” is nothing new, but Arcade Fire has made the theme feel like fertile territory again, said NPR.org. The third album from the Montreal collective focused on the suburbs’ “transitory nature” and found a way to “celebrate and bemoan it simultaneously.” While indie rock is usually self-conscious, The Suburbs “isn’t afraid to be anthemic and big,” and the lyrics of singer Win Butler teem with acute observations. The result is “a perfectly crafted mix of sun-drenched nostalgia and cynical disdain.”
3. LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening
LCD Soundsystem’s third album must be “the smartest dance party of the year,” said the A.V. Club. Over the course of just two previous albums, the James Murphy–led outfit “evolved from basement-recording project to festival headliner,” putting aside snarky jokes to embrace crowd-pleasing sentimentalism. Surprisingly, this record both “embodies that growth and completely ignores it, undercutting its moments of introspection and warmth with sarcastic asides and “wry paeans” to parties and “Drunk Girls.” If this is LCD Soundsystem’s final album, as has been rumored, “it’s one hell of a definitive statement.”
4. Janelle Monáe
A star was born this year, said Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune. Though Atlanta songbird Janelle Monáe seemed to come out of nowhere, the 25-year-old’s “boundary-busting” debut album had “ambition to burn.” Conceived as the soundtrack to an imagined sci-fi film, it creates an “audacious” soundscape that touches on “everything from lounge jazz to hard funk.”
5. Vampire Weekend
Vampire Weekend’s new wave Afro-pop is so catchy and easy to like, you can miss how inventive it is, said Jon Pareles in The New York Times. On Contra, the East Coast prepsters use their lyrics to both “flaunt and dissect the privileged life,” while the album’s “kaleidoscopic” melodies seem to “hopscotch” across a whole world of pop.
6. Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
We can all be glad Big Boi prevailed over the label politics that almost caused this album not to be made, said Marc Hogan in Spin. The solo debut from the “street-savvier half” of Outkast is “a great rap album in a classic sense,” all of it built upon “heavy, heady funk.” Outkast’s Andre 3000 may be better known, but Big Boi has always been the duo’s “best-kept secret.”
Was there a “more inspiring pop star on the planet” than Robyn this year? asked Luke Lewis in New Musical Express. The “provocatively anti-sexual” Swede released a three-part album in 2010 and took over the dance floor with “suffocatingly great” pop songs that infused chilly, futuristic soundscapes with genuine tales of being in love, being heartbroken, and being above it all. The very best of all three Body Talk releases would make “one truly stunning record.”
8. Black Keys
This year, the blues-rock duo the Black Keys boiled things down and delivered their “best record yet,” said Rolling Stone. Brothers bristles with “gnarly blues” and sweaty old soul “stripped bare and rubbed raw.” But drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach weren’t running on autopilot: This is “rock minimalism pushed to the max,” distinguished by hooks that pop out “like compound fractures.”
9. Beach House
The Baltimore duo Beach House grew up this year, said Stuart Berman in Pitchfork.com. Without abandoning the “core characteristics” of their melancholic dream-pop, they cleared away some of the fog of previous productions to emerge as “an assured, emotionally assertive force.” Listeners can now hear the “rough edges” of Victoria Legrand’s husky voice, “greatly enhancing the sense of longing and hurt” in this collection’s aching love songs.
10. The National
The National, a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band, has made a science of creating “sophisticated music for the slightly older rock set,” said Claire Suddath in Time. With his deep, tender baritone, frontman Matt Berninger sings on High Violet about dreary jobs, financial debt, loves outgrown, and dreams that have withered away. But he and the band “do it with such agonizingly beautiful melodies that you find yourself actively wanting to wallow with them.”
SOURCES: American Songwriter, A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Tribune, New York, The New York Times, NME, Paste, Pitchfork.com, NPR.org, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Q, Rolling Stone, Spin, Time, Uncut, and Vibe.