1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Look, life is unfair. Nietzsche died alone and forgotten in an insane asylum. Khloe Kardashian is still on television. I get why you wish the gods had given Kanye’s talent to somebody smarter than Kanye, humbler than Kanye, or maybe even just somebody who doesn’t get his feelings bruised every time he sees a DON’T WALK sign. He probably wishes the same thing. Kanye’s struggle with his own douchebaggery, a struggle he loses most of the time, is part of his artistry. (Just part. Less than half. Fifteen per cent? Twelve?) But note that even in “Monster,” where he exorcises his supposedly monstrous ego, he’s at his most generous, giving Nicki Minaj the cameo of the year, not to mention giving the world a pretty incredible song. You’ll meet bigger douchebags than Kanye every day of your life. Only one of them is going to make this album.
2. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
When the going gets weird, the weird turn Eighties. Like John Cusack in Hot Tub Time Machine, James Murphy goes back in time to the rhythms of his youth, so he can figure out where it all went wrong. But Murphy and crew put up a heroic resistance to listen-once-and-move-on fan culture by making a punk-funk anthology that’s impossible to consume quickly — it takes months to start absorbing all the twists in these songs, even the ones you love the first time you hear them. I’ve been listening to “I Can Change,” “All I Want” and “Dance Yourself Clean” constantly all year, without using them up. If you’ll excuse an Elton John comparison, this was like Rock of the Westies to Kanye’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Late-breaking favorite: “You Wanted a Hit.”
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3. Ke$ha, Cannibal
There’s a Neil Young live album where somebody heckles, “They all sound the same.” Neil replies, “It’s all one song.” I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason I will ever find to compare Ke$ha to Neil Young. She put out two albums in 2010, and I’m picking this one because it’s newer, but it really is all one song, full of flash and verve and humor and drum machines and all the usual Ke$ha themes. Making the hipsters fall in love? Check. Hitting on dudes? Hard? Check. Evoking a suburban twilight zone where sugar-crazed freakazoids sneak into the basement to dance until they’re dumb and go hardcore and there’s glitter on the floor? Checkmate!
4. Sleigh Bells, Treats
Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss prove themselves the Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet of bubblegum noise-pop. It’s a never-fail formula — a shy boy, a loudmouth girl, heavy-breathing girl-group melodies, and a wall of synapse-butchering guitar fuzz.
5. Robyn, Body Talk
One of the year’s great quotes, from the Blow’s Khaela Maricich: “You know how every pop star is just a shining point balancing on a pyramid of gay men?” Robyn is where the pyramid meets the eye.
6. Rick Ross, Teflon Don
Talk about a surprise comeback. “BMF (Blowin’ Money Fast)” and “MC Hammer” were the gangsta anthems, but the unlikely highlight is the occult Illuminati rap “Free Mason,” with Jay-Z. The Rozay Crucian puts his top down like JFK, which means “joining forces with the kings,” and blows money fast, which means “blowing money fast.”
7. Taylor Swift, Speak Now
It’s kind of amazing how much Taylor has in common with the young Morrissey: their fixation on humdrum small towns and the need to escape to the big city, their solipstic delight in one-sided romantic travails, their certainty that eternal adolescence is a point of pride, their taste in mean dudes. “You made a rebel of a careless man’s cautious daughter” reminds me of “You are your mother’s only son and you are a desperate one” the way “Still drinking and claiming that I can’t sing” reminds me of “She said ‘I know you and you cannot sing’ / I said ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.'” But “Long Live” is her “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” without a double-decker bus in sight. And her faith in love is still devout.
8. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Return of Chico Dusty
How does an album this fully realized, this virtuosic, spend years gathering dust while the music business decides whether it’s worth releasing or not? Yet no matter how long the tracks took to touch down, the lyrical Darth Vader still sounds futuristic.
9. Liars, Sisterworld
Like every Liars album, this sounds extremely different from the others, in unpredictable ways, yet it feels like it was the one they should have made next. Sisterworld is noisier and less immediate than 2007’s Liars, their best by a mile, yet still great in that menacingly murky way. I started to count the fatalities on this record but I lost track about halfway through “Scarecrows on a Crooked Slant.”
10. Grinderman, Grinderman 2
Nick Cave takes a breather from his busy schedule of Bad Seeds albums, film scores and novel-writing to lock himself up in the man-cave with his hairiest rock & roll friends and bash out a few gleefully obscene sex rants. Preach, man, preach: “My baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster / Two big humps and then I’m gone.”