1. Junip, Fields (Mute)
In a year that demanded serious chilling-out, Jose Gonzales made a gorgeous chill-out record, all gentle melodies and hypnotizing grooves. Yet — as with most things — below the pretty surfaces were cracks, doubt, turmoil.
2. Janelle Monáe, The ArchAndroid (Atlantic)
Everyone was trying to out-freak each other in 2010, from rappers to singer-songwriters — even Sufjan Stevens put on a tin foil helmet for a school play version of P-Funk's '76 Mothership tour. But this mix of R&B, Afrobeat, Afro-futurism, and post-war retro songcraft felt like the most purposeful weirdness around: mutability as style and survival tactic.
3. Jonsi, Go (XL)
Sigur Rós dude gets together with composer Nico Muhly and a laptop to make 21st-century art songs. Not quite dance music, but better beats than Schubert.
4. Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song (Mercury/Nashville)
A two-disc dissertation on the art of country music songwriting.
5. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me (Drag City)
Sure, the best triple-LP since Sandinista! also had some filler, if you measured it out with a teaspoon. But the pleasure is in the bounty and the invention in the songwriting, arranging, lyrics and harp-playing (harp-playing!) never flags.
6. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (Merge)
Hardly the first band to locate a battle for the human soul amidst manicured lawns, but all the more remarkable for making the struggle to overcome numbness feel utterly immediate, like the sting of a cutter's pen-knife.
7. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam)
What will the king of TMI rhyme about when he resolves his women issues? Here's hoping he still flips tracks this hot when he does.
8. Various, Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House (Out Here)
Like electro-funk's rooting in Brazilian favelas, Chicago house seeded an entire scene in South Africa. Deep 4/4 beats with Zulu party chants, Setswana come-ons, English dress-downs and universal heartache.
9. Deerhunter, Halcyon Dreams (4AD)
Of all the indie acts mining pre-rock pop songcraft (see also Girls, Best Coast), Deerhunter did the most with it, smearing tunes into psychedelic lo-fi murals without losing those sweet melodies.
10. Sleigh Bells, Treats (Mom & Pop)
Turns out what we really needed this year was a punk-rock Beyoncé.
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