Critic's Picks: Top Five Albums of 2010
1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
No artist epitomized the state of modern music last year more than Mr. West. Fitting, too, as Kanye’s post-modern aesthetic has become a vital part of the hip-hop since he first started warping 70s soul samples on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint almost 10 years ago. On Fantasy, however, Kanye takes it to another level; his samples reach unprecedented levels of obscurity, and his arrangements and production challenge the listener to think outside the boundaries of convention. Lyrically, he takes his audience on a convoluted journey through a world of decadence, hedonism, and extravagance, all told through his own unique perspectives on love, lust, and betrayal. Tellingly, this album managed to single-handedly change my perception of Rick Ross as a rapper; his verse on “Devil in a New Dress” turns a great song into an extraordinary one. But this is Kanye’s show. He put his life into his art, and gave us the most uncompromisingly honest, forward-thinking work of his career; hip-hop has no choice but to catch up.
2. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Speaking of uncompromising and forward-thinking artists, Deerhunter’s fourth album shows the band’s progress.. They’ve become talismanic figures in an American indie scene that seems more crowded than ever, and it’s because they’re never afraid to expand upon their aesthetic, continually incorporating more influences and sounds into their template. The songs on Halcyon Digest are as good a batch of tunes as Bradford Cox and his crew have ever put together, and their musicianship has developed to the point where they almost effortlessly hit numerous, awe-inspiring moments on this record. The familiar avant-punk of their past work can still be heard, but mostly takes a backseat to intricate arrangements and absolutely beautiful songwriting. This is a band in full-force, unstoppably prolific and completely in command of their music.
3. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
OutKast may now be virtually nonexistent, but Big Boi is still around to give us a bit of the magic the group blessed us with over the past two decades. Notoriously held captive for years from the general public by record-label red tape, Son of Chico Dusty is the culmination of a career of lyrical brilliance for Big Boi. Too many times I’ve heard people say Andre 3000 was the better half of the group and that he carried them on the OutKast albums; while Andre is a genius and I did prefer The Love Below to Speakerboxxx, this album finally stakes Big Boi’s individual claim one of the greatest to ever grace a mic. The beats emit pure auditory pleasure, Southern rap to the very core; Gucci Mane’s guest verse somehow makes “Shine Blockas” a classic, and “Shutterbugg” was the most infectious rap track of the year. Hopefully, this record rouses Andre out of his sleep and back in the booth.
4. Vampire Weekend - Contra
Go ahead, hate all you want; I’ve had more than a fair share of friends reprimand me for even bringing up Vampire Weekend in conversation---and I can understand why. Their sound is clean, their image cleaner, their lyrics the point of endless scrutiny; but when it all comes together like it does on Contra, it makes for wonderful listening. They are who they are, a group of intelligent, literate 20-somethings who have a magnificent ear for melodic complexity and well-timed lyrics that result in pop perfection. The real fun of Contra, though, is how it expands upon the group’s self-titled debut. Afro-pop touchstones remain, but are utilized with more electronics, more left turns, more experimentation. If it’s not as solid from beginning to end as their last record, the song “Diplomat’s Son” more than makes up for it, and is probably the best thing they’ve ever recorded.
5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
With the exception of Kanye’s album, for me the most anticipated release of 2010. But unlike Kanye’s album, it did not exceed all expectations. I expected to hear a meditation of Funeral-like emotional depth and intimacy. What I found was a work of amazing density and scope; it was certainly too much to wrap my head around after one initial listen. But records like The Suburbs, filled to the brim with sounds, ideas, and sentiments, must be played to death and on repeat until every Win Butler lyric has been given time to resonate, every melody the opportunity to reveal itself. No, it isn’t as striking in its beauty as Funeral, and probably not as focused an effort as Neon Bible. Yes, it could definitely use some editing. But it’s also a very good record by a very talented group of artists who will certainly continue to make some of the most significant music of their era.