I don’t mind making year-end lists, and in some cases I even enjoy reading them—but anybody who bothers arguing about them is a fool. It’s impossible to hear everything released in a year, and the “consensus” picks—the albums that show up on list after list—say more about how widely available and heavily promoted a piece of music is than they do about its quality. On the day I wrote this, the ten records below stood out in my mind as the best of 2010. Ask me to choose again in a week, though, and I might come up with a different list. —Peter Margasak
10. Seu Jorge and Almaz Seu Jorge and Almaz (Now-Again/Stones Throw) A lot of people first heard Brazilian singer Seu Jorge thanks to his David Bowie homage in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but even at the time I thought it was the least interesting thing he’d done—so I certainly didn’t expect this spontaneously recorded collection of covers to be the highlight of his career. Jorge and Almaz (a nimble trio featuring two members of Nacao Zumbi) reinterpret Brazilian classics by stars like Jorge Ben, Tim Maia, and Martinho da Vila, familiar English-language tunes from Kraftwerk, Roy Ayers, and Michael Jackson, and a heavy obscurity from a group called Tribo Massahi. The scrappy band borrows from dub, psychedelia, and rock to inject its loose, suave arrangements—whether of sambas, bossa novas, or R&B hits—with electric vitality.
9. Koboku Senju Selektiv Hogst (Sofa) This year my favorite album of free improvisation is by Japanese-Norwegian quintet Koboku Senju, which consists of Tetuzi Akiyama (guitar), Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board), Eivind Lonning (trumpet), Espen Reinertsen (saxophone and flute), and Martin Taxt (tuba). The familar vocabularies of the horns and guitar are nowhere in evidence, and the music trafficks in no identifiable genre—even the pieces that sprang from prompts like “death metal” or “funeral march” called out by band members sound nothing like those styles. Koboku Senju makes its own road, finding a calm through-line across the turbulence it creates and lending an austere and meditative beauty to a profusion of details and textures that easily could’ve been dizzying. It’s useless to try to identify foreground and background; the pleasure comes from how the parts fit together and morph en masse.
8. Ideal Bread Transmit: Vol. 2 of the Music of Steve Lacy (Cuneiform) Though soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was one of the first jazz musicians to launch a repertory band—in the early 60s he played the music of Thelonious Monk with School Days—he’s hardly an easy subject for such a group. (Of course, the same thing could be said of Monk.) Lacy’s exploratory aesthetic and dry, austere tone—a huge departure from the soprano’s usual sweet sound—are so inextricably linked with his material that it’s hard to do anything that doesn’t sound either imitative or disrespectful. But Ideal Bread—baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, bassist Reuben Radding, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—have done Lacy proud again. Whether synthesizing ideas from several different Lacy arrangements of the same tune or extrapolating solos from sections of the written score, they play the master’s music with a thoughtful, focused rigor that’s on par with his.
7. Atomic Theater Tilters Vols. 1 and 2 (Jazzland) This Scandinavian quintet seems to turn up in my top ten every time it makes a record. Atomic has evolved constantly since forming in 1999, and over the past few years they’ve pushed their bold postbop toward a much more open and spontaneous sound—making their music more exciting and challenging without losing a bit of its satisfying soulfulness. I’m cheating a little here, as these excellent 2009 live recordings are spread across two releases, but either one would’ve made my list alone.
6. Khaira Arby Timbuktu Tarab (Clermont Music) Malian singer Khaira Arby, a major figure in her homeland for more than a decade, released her first U.S. album this year and followed up with a stateside tour that included two knockout performances at Chicago’s World Music Festival. Ali Farka Toure was one of her cousins, and the kind of spindly, cyclical guitar licks he made famous turn up all over Timbuktu Tarab, interwoven with terse n’goni and fiddle parts; the music also has affinities with the so-called desert rock of bands like Tinariwen. What sets it apart is Arby’s searing, powerful voice, ironclad pitch control, and regal bearing. This is not only the best African record I heard in 2010 but one of the best I’ve heard in many years.
5. Marc Ribot Silent Movies (Pi) For this gorgeous solo album, mercurial guitarist Marc Ribot recorded music he’s scored for films both real and imaginary, abetted on a few tracks by subtle atmospheric noise from Keefus Ciancia (credited with “soundscapes” on the sleeve). As much as I’ve enjoyed the recent outpouring of technically dazzling fingerstyle guitar records, I like the rough-edged power of these electric-guitar pieces even more—they favor raw emotion and dark, harrowing beauty over hypnotizing intricacy. With his off-kilter style and jarring stabs of dissonance, Ribot has always been great at ugliness, but he’s never made it sound as graceful and vulnerable as he does here.
4. John McNeil and Bill McHenry Chill Morn He Climb Jenny (Sunnyside) On their second album together, trumpeter John McNeil and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry carry on their convincing reappraisal of the “cool” west-coast jazz of the 1950s. Prodded by the spiky swing of drummer Jochen Rueckert and bassist Joe Martin, they resurrect tunes by overlooked pianist Russ Freeman and bring subversive humor to 40s pop tunes like “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Aren’t You Glad You’re You.” The classic west-coast sound isn’t particularly aggressive, but it’d be a mistake to write it off as lightweight or insubstantial because of that—and McNeil and McHenry demonstrate exactly why, bringing a stunning rapport to the exhilarating multilinear improvisations typical of the style.
3. Alasdair Roberts & Friends Too Long in This Condition (Drag City) Alasdair Roberts started his musical career in the mid-90s as leader of the Will Oldham-worshipping Appendix Out, but since then he’s committed himself to Scottish folk. On this powerful album, which consists of nine traditional tunes and one original instrumental, he brings contemporary vitality, parched soul, and spontaneous, unmannered beauty to his interpretations, distinguishing himself from just about everyone else I’ve heard sing this repertoire. He’s joined by a stellar support cast, including English folk singer Emily Portman on concertina and backing vocals and Trembling Bells guitarist Ben Reynolds on lap steel.
2. Parker/Guy/Lytton + Peter Evans Scenes in the House of Music (Clean Feed) The trio of reedist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy, and percussionist Paul Lytton is a paragon of European free improvisation, carrying on the first-wave style of brutally intense radical abstraction. Every member has a profoundly individual vocabulary, deployed in the service of rigorous full-ensemble interaction—no soloing over changes here—and the group’s energy and inventiveness haven’t flagged after nearly 30 years. It’s a testament to the wizardry of young trumpeter Peter Evans that he can step into this lineup of titans and improve it—his sensitivity and musicality place him in the uppermost rank among improvisers the world over.
1. Jason Moran Ten (Blue Note) Pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits have played together as the Bandwagon for a decade, and the title of the trio’s latest album, Ten, is a tip of the hat to that fact. They’ve been one of the best bands in jazz for that entire stretch in part because of the allegiance the rhythm section shows Moran, which results in a rare kind of ensemble drive. Ten complements Moran’s sturdy, consistently surprising originals with pieces by fellow iconoclasts Thelonious Monk, Conlon Nancarrow, Leonard Bernstein, and Jaki Byard, but despite the pianist’s dominant role in determining the group’s repertoire, its roiling, cohesive performances are never less than collective creations.
I listened to hundreds, maybe thousands of albums this year, and most of them were mediocre if not flat-out terrible. But some of them challenged me, and rewarded the days I spent puzzling over them. A few were Very Important. Here are ten that found a place in my heart and refused to leave. —Miles Raymer
10. Darkthrone Circle the Wagons (Peaceville) Few artists this side of Mick Collins are as insanely geeky about records as Darkthrone founder Leif Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz—and like Collins, he fills his own music with references to the disparate styles in his collection. Darkthrone are best known for their role in Norway’s early black-metal scene, but they’ve done everything from death metal to crust punk, and Circle the Wagons has bits of it all—you can pick up the New Wave of British Heavy Metal too, especially the rougher Motorhead side of things. It rips harder than anything I’ve heard from the past 12 months.
9. Bruno Mars Doo-Wops & Hooligans (Asylum) It was a good year for pop radio, and Bruno Mars and his partners in the Smeezingtons—who cowrote and produced Cee Lo Green’s supremely ingratiating “Fuck You!,” among other hits—are largely responsible. As its title suggests, Doo-Wops applies a retro songwriting sensibility—some Holland-Dozier-Holland, a little Goffin & King—to the high-gloss candy R&B of the Billboard Hot 100, and in the results have earned a spot on my iTunes “Most Played” list.
8. Big K.R.I.T. K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (Def Jam/Multi) Hip-hop has been on an artsy kick for a couple of years now, and over the past few months rappers big and small have ramped it up, seemingly competing to see who can use the most cutting-edge indie-rock samples or develop the most outre aesthetic. So it’s good to have a few strong artists anchored in the tried and true. MC and producer Big K.R.I.T. makes something like the platonic ideal of southern rap—nothing on his debut hasn’t been done before, but it’s rarely been done so well.
7. Disappears Lux (Kranky) This group of Chicago indie luminaries has hit upon a formula so perfect I’m surprised it isn’t already its own genre. Even on paper, playing garage rock like it’s Krautrock (or vice versa) sounds like a killer idea, and Disappears take it a step further with a solid hooks-per-song ratio and heaps of matte-black cool.
6. LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin) I like that James Murphy seems to kinda hate how good he is at making addictive dance records that people can’t stop talking about. I like This Is Happening‘s “Drunk Girls” for the way it takes a big bite of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”—Murphy is great at rewriting songs I already love and making them seem brand-new again. I also like its line about how love is an astronaut (“It comes back, but it’s never the same”) and its totally self-conscious fist-pumping dumbness. And I love the cover of Carl Craig’s Detroit techno classic “Throw” that comes with the iTunes edition of the album.
5. Harlem Hippies (Matador) The three guys in Harlem appear to sincerely believe that trying to make a serious, important rock record is dumb. But none of their attempts to come off like knuckleheads—stoner-chuckle song titles, lyrics full of adolescent jokes, a fuck-it approach to sound quality—can obscure their genius-level gift for melody. If a song came out in the past year that’s better than Harlem’s “Someday Soon,” I didn’t hear it.
4. The 1900s Return of the Century (Parasol) Through several lineup changes and a collective nervous breakdown that radically altered the way the band functions, the 1900s have managed something that most stable, untroubled groups never pull off: find a sound, stick with it, and improve on it with each passing record. Return of the Century is such a step up from its already great predecessors that at this point I can’t imagine there’s any other act doing lilting, complex psychedelic folk-pop better.
3. Rick Ross Teflon Don (Def Jam) Rick Ross is the Rasputin of rap. His 2006 megajam “Hustlin'” was the kind of perfect debut single that can make and break a career in one shot—any follow-up should’ve fallen short and failed. The 2008 revelation that he worked as a prison guard in the early 90s should’ve ruined him—especially since he’s built his entire persona around his alleged prowess as a cocaine-cartel boss. Somehow he’s still hanging in, though, and not only that but he seems to top himself with every new rap. Teflon Don is an undeniable juggernaut of massive synth-hop beats and the most quotable bullshit fantasy drug-dealer talk of the year.
2. Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam) Kanye’s fifth album is not, as some excitable souls have claimed, perfect. But its flaws are good flaws to have—if you’re going to miss the mark, it’s better to do so out of a monumental surfeit of ambition and a reckless drive to experiment. And the record does at least approach perfection in several places, like the rolling electro-tribal beat of “Power”; the caustic, dizzying synths underpinning “Hell of a Life”; and the descent into confusion and brilliantly out-of-left-field spoken-word coda from Chris Rock on the mournful “Blame Game.”
1. Thee Oh Sees Warm Slime (In the Red) Thee Oh Sees are the best thing happening in rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s freaky mastermind, John Dwyer, writes by-the-numbers garage riffs, but he and his crackling band drive them into wild and unpredictable places, and he’s got a special cunning when it comes to vocal melodies that wedge themselves in your brain for days at a time. Thee Oh Sees are best experienced live, but the heady 13 minutes of the title cut provide some of the same mind-bending effect.
We’re usually up to our snouts in gossip about Chicago’s music scene, but we didn’t want to do a Chi-town top ten next to two lists from all over—besides, we love all our local yokels equally! No picking favorites! Problem is, we haven’t actually heard enough records in 2010 to come up with our own list—being a wolf is a full-time job, y’all. So instead we just chose some albums it’d be easy to make fun of, and some others that have already showed up on so many year-end lists that we figured they must be good. We still haven’t listened to most of them, to be honest, but we’re pretty sure you won’t be able to tell. —Gossip Wolf
10. Joanna Newsom Have One on Me (Drag City) Plenty of listeners thought this three-LP masterpiece dragged on. Fiddlesticks! Our favorite harping minstrel should have called it “Have Seven on Me, Bitches” and made it eight hours long! The dramatic ballad “You and Me, Bess,” where Joanna sheds tears over former first lady Bess Truman, easily could’ve filled an album side all by itself. If she stretches out and lets her songs really breathe on her next album, it’ll be handy for nine-to-fivers: No more watching the clock! Just leave when the music stops!
9. T.I. No Mercy (Atlantic) In a recession, nothing smarts quite like hearing that having money ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. T.I.’s “Castle Walls” (with Christina Aguilera), a standout jam from No Mercy, carries two poignantly conflicting messages: T.I. is rich (he has Ferraris and servants) and T.I. is successful (he has Grammys), but T.I. is also in “agony” inside his enormous house. Pity the (spiritually) poor rap star! He even dares us to “walk in my nines” for a minute. Dude, we wear size 14 shoes, or we would in a heartbeat. Have you ever seen wolf feet? Harsh toke!
8. and 7. Best Coast Crazy for You (Mexican Summer) and Wavves King of the Beach (Fat Possum) Could indie-rock luv get any more romantic than this? The Beyonce and Jay-Z of nu-grunge have made quite a world for themselves: Taco Bell sponsorships, Twitter quests for weed, and hazed-out anthems for Pitchfork kiddies. Amazingly, if you start The Human Centipede with the sound off and play both these records along with it, everything totally syncs up!
6. Taylor Swift Speak Now (Big Machine) With Speak Now, this consummate hustler and steely showbiz veteran shows us again why nobody fucks with Taylor Swift: on song after song she gives both barrels to boorish exes and lame haters. On the business end of a particularly nasty takedown is much-rumored (but never named) former paramour Ron Magers.
5. LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin) LCD Soundsystem are mostly old guys from the 80s and 90s, but they’ve headlined the Pitchfork festival and invented the current “Brooklyn Sound.” This Is Happening is fresh and progressive, establishing them as rightful heirs to the punk-funk crown—it’s the Blood Sugar Sex Magik of the Gossip Girl era.
4. M.I.A. // / Y / (Interscope) The best video of the year was M.I.A.’s “Born Free.” A potent indictment of the state of American democracy, it’s impossible to watch without asking yourself, “Who has the right to blow up our children? Google? Leon Panetta? Lady Gaga?” Certain holier-than-thou types insist that M.I.A. has betrayed her supporters in the Symbionese Liberation Army by marrying the guy who invented Four Loko, but this wolf has only respect. Who else is bringing world music to the forefront of pop?
3. Vampire Weekend Contra (XL) Vampire Weekend probably couldn’t sound bummed out if they tried. Good thing too, because these four clean-cut New Yorkerss got in hot water for allegedly using an improperly licensed photo of Who’s the Boss star Judith Light on the cover of Contra. And the bad news didn’t stop with the album art—their music attracted accusations of cultural tourism, with critics complaining that they’d pillaged the back catalogs of several different 90s ska bands. Luckily, a recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show seems to have shored up Vampire Weekend’s street cred—Gossip Wolf sees possible mainstream success in their future!
2. The Arcade Fire The Suburbs (Merge) Even if you’ve never confronted the ultimate angst of life in the crushing vortex of “the sprawl,” this groundbreaking record by a band of humble Canadians might save your soul. By now the whole world knows the tale of the 15 teenagers in Scottsdale, Arizona, who disbanded their suicide cult after hearing violin-laden choruses and earnest, uplifting vocals of The Suburbs. Give it a listen—you might decide to join a suicide cult yourself, just so you can quit!
1. Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam) In a year when the biggest story in music seemed certain to be the King of Pop’s untimely death, this album trumped everything. From the flashy combo of newer Jay-Z beats and older Dipset rhyme schemes to the parade of A-list guest spots (like the totally monster hook Bon Jovi sings on “Monster”), it’s pure ear candy. But Kanye’s newfound humility—perhaps an act of contrition for publicly embarrassing both himself and Taylor Dayne at her graduation—is what truly anchors My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. After that controversy, we turned our furry backs on Yeezy. But he has reupholstered the pussy of our shared musical landscape with his luxurious excellence. He is forgiven!